At the time it was a splurge for us—thirty dollars—but how could we resist? Turns out the shop owner had just polished its brass base that very morning before putting it in the shop window. "I knew it would go quickly," he said, chuckling. The shop is gone now. Still, I'm sure he'd be happy to know it's given us many years of joy. Every time I hear its version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," I have to smile.
The boats in the San Francisco Yacht Harbor have wonderfully whimsical names: Irish Whisper. Calico Dragon. Sea Hawk. Kookaburra. Nai'a. Daisy. Escapade. Effie Jane. Portola.
Then there's the one named, simply, "Sailboat."
Talk about putting things in perspective.
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Gorgeous, wouldn't you say? It was painted by the 19th Century famous portraitist, John Singer Sargent. His abstracts were always of friends– usually other artists, such as himself. I wonder if that was because he felt his clients demanded something more meticulous, whereas perhaps these were painted on the fly? His version of toting a camera was to relax with easel, canvas and paints, be it oils or watercolors.
This one is entitled "Zuleika," was completed in 1907, and hangs in the Brooklyn Museum. The name is a genus of moth. It is also Persian in origin, meaning "fair, brilliant, lovely."
She certainly looks that way, here.
Who was she? The wife of a friend, perhaps? There are a series of poems based on a character by that name. Turns out Sargent was friends with humorist Max Beerbohm, who was working on a contemporary novel by that title, about a woman by that name whose beauty was so great that her merely stepping off a train to visit her grandfather in Oxford caused men to obsess over her — to the point of committing mass suicide.
This Sargent painting and Beerbohm's novel might have been the very first product cross-promotion — multi-platforming in its earliest form.
More than likely, it was Sargent's way of jibing Beerbohm — payback for the latter's caricutures of the revered painter.
Notice the subject's eyebrows are just one wave of black paint. Sargent's downward point-of-view is filled with realistic shadowing. The grass is a riot of green, blue and yellow hues which play tricks on the mind: we envision individual blades of grass, and dappled sunlight.
I love that he caught her reading. Is Proust? Dickens? Baudliere? Possibly The Works of Max Beerbohm.
Art is fun, and can be funny, too,
My latest novel is
The Housewife Assassin's
Vacation to Die For
Now out, in
To top it off, I can't really swim.
Thank God for the dog paddle.
The lake was deep, but small enough that I could make it to the side–with the help of my boyfriend. Thank God he was smart enough to jump in the back seat and kick out a door before the water pressure made it impossible. I was an idiot. I thought the damn car would float, like the ones in the Volkswagen ads.
He had a Chevy Impala.
I guess I channeled that experience in this excerpt. It's one of my favorites from The Housewife Assassin's Killer Christmas Tips. 'Tis not the season. Then again, Death never takes a holiday.
Zoran is a chatterbox. He hasn’t quit talking
since we pulled out of the garage. Having dropped his fake British accent, his
sentences slip and slide over Slavic pronouns and badass claims.
I make it easy for him. I can’t talk, let alone
move. In other words, I’m a captive audience, both literally and figuratively.
“I would have liked to have given you a truth
serum first, to find out who sent you. The Muslims? The Croats? Surely it
wasn’t my old friends, the Serbs? And it can’t be the Mexican government. They
have bigger worries than the disappearance of a few grape pickers. If only the
injection I gave you allowed you to nod at my questions, but it won’t wear off
for a couple of hours.”
Nod? I wish I could reach up and pull the tongue
out of his head. We’ve been in the car for at least an hour now, and he’s been
giving me a science lesson on what to expect while on his operating table.
He describes his favorite instrument: a Blue Max
eighteen-inch 45 cc Heavy Duty gas chainsaw. He uses it to chop up the bodies
after cutting open his victims and removing vital organs, while they’re still
alive of course. He explains that, like me, they were first given a
neuromuscular block to paralyze them. But he’s such a sicko that he skips the
anesthesia that would block their pain.
“We should be at my ranch in another hour.” As
if reading my mind, he adds, “The drug won’t wear off before we get there. And
by the way, any friends who may come looking for you will be disappointed. You
see, the cabin is not in my name. It belonged to a now-deceased fellow whom I
met while fishing on Big Bear Lake. The lonely old hermit died of a sudden
heart attack while feeding his hogs! They ate him too. Can you imagine that?
You see, to those animals, human flesh is a delicacy, compared to the garbage
they ate before I came along. As you can imagine, I keep them well fed. Tonight
they will be feasting, ecstatically I might add, on your leftovers.”
Not if I can help it.
Seems I’ll have some help with Los Angeles’
typical late Friday afternoon traffic. As the I-10 crawls east toward San
Bernardino Valley, every now and again Zoran looks back at me in the rear-view
mirror. I keep my face totally still. The whole drive I’ve been memorizing
turns, and looking out the window for glimpses of expressway signs.
I vow to get back to my children. My
twelve-year-old daughter, Mary, and my ten-year-old son, Jeff, need to be picked
up from basketball practice. And before after-school pickup, I was going to
stop at a toy store in East South Central, which, I’ve been told, still has a
few Furbys on the shelf. I have every intention on watching five-year-old
Trisha squeal with delight when she opens one on Christmas morning.
And of course, Jack knows Ratko was on my to-do
list today. If I don’t show up, he’ll be frantic. From the day of Trisha’s
birth and until before Jack came into their lives, I’d lied to my children and
told them their father had gone away, “on business.”
Did it stop them from feeling deserted? No.
If Ratko has his way and I disappear into the
gullets of some hogs in the middle of nowhere, once again they’ll be
This resolve drives my desire to move any
appendage. By the time we turn onto State Road 330 going north, I’m able to
bend a random finger, to curl a single toe. Twenty minutes later, by the time
he has veered left onto State Road 18, I can finally flex my ankle, and then my
wrist. Now, if only I could move my arms…
I can, just barely.
“Almost there,” he chortles gaily. “By the way,
the hogs love the sound of the saw. To them, it’s the dinner bell. When I turn
it on, you’ll hear them squealing with delight. Then again, maybe not, since
you’ll be screaming even louder.” He pauses, as if a new thought has just
struck him. Too bad it isn’t a hammer instead. “Tell me, Mrs. Pitt or whatever
your name is, are you a drinker? No problem if you can’t nod. I guess I’ll know
soon enough. The telltale sign is any swelling of the liver. If so, I won’t be
able to sell it. That’s okay. I’ll enjoy it myself, with grilled onions, and a
hint of dill—”
The thought of being the main course in Ratko
Zoran’s dinner propels me upward.
Between the crux of my elbow and the driver-side
headrest, Ratko is in a headlock from which he cannot move. He chokes and
flails, but I refuse to let go. Although the car swerves all over the road at
sixty-miles an hour, I hold tight. Then, on the count of three I wrench his
head fast, to the right, until I hear the snap that tells me I’ve broken his
Only after he chortles his last gasp do I look
up. Before my death grip, Zoran had steered the car onto the Stanfield Cutoff,
a sliver of a road that unites both sides of Bear Lake at its narrowest
juncture. The car sidles off the unprotected shoulder and into the lake.
There is no time to jump out before it nose-dives
into the lake.
The BMW sinks below the lake’s cold, choppy
waves. The water pressure against the doors keep it sealed, like a tomb. With
the electrical system dead, I can’t open a window, either. Soon the oxygen will
be exhausted. I can hold my breath for three minutes, tops.
Still, I’ll be damned if I’m going to be found
in the bottom of this lake with this war criminal. Not with Christmas just
around the corner.
I’m pounding on the window when it hits me. My diamond.
Immediately, I etch around the back window with
my ring. Then I brace myself on the back of the front seat before kicking it
out with both feet.
The force of the kick pushes out the glass, and
me with it. As the water flows into the vacuum of dead air I leave behind, I
feel myself being sucked into the dark, frigid abyss. I force myself to open my
eyes, to look for light, anywhere.
Finally, over my head, I see something. My lungs
burn as I kick with all my strength, toward the brightness.
I burst up out of the water like a buoy submerged
too deep, for too long. I cough out water and fear while bobbing in the gentle
waves of the lake.
My teeth chatter as I swim to shore. I don’t
care that I look like a drowned rat. I’m still alive.
When I reach the road, I head west, the way we
came. I’ll keep running until I come across a store, or someone with a cell
phone, so that I can let Jack and the kids know I may be late, but that I’ll be
They must be worried sick about me.
“Mom! Where have you been? We’ve been waiting
here since basketball practice ended two hours ago!”
Jeff’s way of saying Thanks, Mom for picking me up, and boy do I miss you and love you and
can’t live without you leaves a lot to be desired.
Yes, admittedly, I’m late for my turn at
carpooling Jeff and his two pals, Morton Smith and Cheever Bing, from
Hey, that’s what happens when a hit doesn’t go
according to plan.
I would have been much later, too, if a trucker
hauling artichokes and Roma tomatoes from the Central Valley hadn’t been kind
enough to give me a lift off the side of a lonely two-lane blacktop.
But just my luck, I hitched a ride with the only
trucker in the world who sees no need to have a cell phone when he's got his
trusty old Cobra CB radio, so I had no way to call Jack and let him know the
mission was accomplished, sort of.
When I hopped in the trucker’s cab, he warned me
he could take me only as far as downtown Los Angeles. But he changed his mind
and dropped me across the street from Ratko’s office in Beverly Hills when he
realized I knew every song on his Best of
Bonnie Raitt CD.
He sighed and wiped away a tear as I finished
the last mournful stanza of “Not the Only One.”
“It’s as if Bonnie is sitting right here beside
“Thanks for the compliment,” I said, nodding
shyly. I may not be a redhead (at least, not today) but the raspy voice was
natural enough after that frigid dip in Big Bear Lake.
Little did the trucker know how much that
particular song means to me. Only recently I found out about Jack’s unresolved
feelings for Valentina.
To put it bluntly, I’m not his “only one.”
No doubt he’d claim the same about me. Not only
did my ex, Carl, let me in on Jack’s little secret in the hope of breaking us
up, he’s also made it clear that he plans on staying in my life, despite my
telling him to get lost.
Even his position as number three on every
terrorist watch list hasn’t kept him from wooing me, threatening me, and
I know he’s a crack shot, so it must be true
that love is blind.
Considering how many of my bullets have just
grazed him, I guess I have a few unresolved issues as well.
Now that I’m on dry land and within arms reach,
does my son even notice that I’m sopping wet from head to toe?
Nah. That would mean he’d have to look up from
the video game he’s playing on his cell phone.
Okay, I can play a game as well. “So sorry! I
was out Christmas shopping.”
His anger dissipates when he hears this. I can
tell by the silent shrug that accompanies his quick glance into the back of my Honda
To dodge the fact that there are no store bags
anywhere in sight, I ask, “Why didn’t you call you father?”
“I did! But when I told him you weren’t picking
up your phone, he sounded sort of worried and hung up fast."
"Call him back and tell him I'm here."
The last thing I need is for Jack to worry about me, now that I'm safe and sound.
As he hits Jack's digits, Cheever pipes up. “And
my mom should be here any minute." Then he adds with a smirk, “But she
sounded pissed. You know, she schedules her mani-pedi when it’s your turn to
drive, so she can gossip with Mrs. Swift and Mrs. Cockhead… um, I mean Mrs. Coxhead.”
Cheever’s deliberate faux pas gets the desired effect. Morton snorts the last of his Red
Bull through his nose and almost chokes on it.
I wince when I hear this. Not because Morton
might suffocate on my watch (frankly, a loss of oxygen to his brain may calm
down the kid’s libidinous fantasies), but because it means I’ll get yet another
tongue lashing from Penelope Bing for showing up late to carpool.
There’s still time to beat her fair and square.
If he’s already at our house, and I fill his belly with a nourishing bowl of
Campbell’s tomato soup and Kraft grilled cheese sandwiches, she’ll have nothing
to bitch about.
I drill the boys with my best do as I say look. “Jump in! Now! I’ve
got a pot of hot soup and sandwiches waiting—”
“What about Mary?”
“Oh!” How could I forget my eldest daughter?
Thank goodness Trisha, my youngest, had an after-school play date with her pal
Janie Breck, whose mother owns the largest McMansion in Hilldale. “Well, where
is Mary? I asked her to wait here, with you.”
Cheever chortles like a hyena. “Making out under
the bleachers with Trevor Smith—”
Both Jeff and Morton slap their hands over his
mouth. “Shut your piehole, Cheever! They paid us a buck each to keep quiet,
His bites to their palms have them yelping.
“Yeah, well, I warned them. Anything under a fiver, I have a selective memory.”
Mary’s crush on Trevor Smith, Morton’s brother
and the lead forward on Hilldale Middle School’s Varsity Wildcats basketball
team, grows exponentially with every three-pointer he makes. The last thing I
need to hear is that Mary and Trevor’s ongoing attraction for each other has
gone from shyly flirtatious wordplay to outright foreplay.
I jump out of the car and run into the gym. It’s
empty, but I hear moaning, and pain has nothing to do with it. I move quickly
but silently under the bleachers until I spot them huddled together on the
floor, eyes closed and lips pressed together.
By her fierce concentration, my guess is that
it’s not the first time she’s been kissed.
This realization is both sweet and bitter for
me. While your first kiss is a rite of passage that every girl dreams of, every
parent contemplates it with both angst and pride. Yes, we are proud that
someone sees the beauty in our child. But we dread the thought of her
experiencing heartbreak, or that she may grow up much too fast, and much too
When Mary fell for this guy, where was I? Doing
laundry? Watching Trisha attempt pirouettes in ballet class? Saving the world
Wherever I was, it certainly doesn’t matter now.
Neither do my feelings about it. She has a right to grow up, fall in love, and
make her own mistakes.
Within reason! My goodness, she’s still twelve
And in time, she’ll understand she has nothing
to hide from me, that she can always share her celebrations with the one who
loves her as no one else can. She will realize I welcome every rite of passage
on her life journey.
Had my mother felt the same way about me? I’ll
never know. She died of cancer when I was only eleven. I guess that’s why I see
no reason for chastising Mary for keeping this very special memory a secret.
But I’ll break every finger on Trevor’s hand if
it reaches its final destination, her breast.
“Ouch!” Trevor cries, as I yank his pinky finger
as far back as it will go. “Mrs. Stone?
What are you doing here?”
At the sound of my name, Mary’s eyes pop open.
When she sees me, she practically leaps straight up in the air.
“Mom! I didn’t expect you—”
“Obviously not.” I give Trevor’s hand one more
hard twist, behind his back, and point him toward the exit. “Get in the car,
now. Both of you. Trevor, I’m dropping you and Morton at your house.”
“No, Mom! Trevor was going to help me with my
“I think Trevor has taught you enough for one
day. Let’s get moving.”
Mary glowers, but she follows Trevor out the
We’re too late. By the time we’re back outside,
Penelope Bing is already there. With her is her usual momtourage, Tiffy Swift
and the unfortunately named Hayley Coxhead.
“So you finally remembered you’d left the
children out here in the cold to fend for themselves.” Penelope’s glare could
Tiffy’s laser-sharp gaze sweeps over me. “My
God, Donna, you’re a mess! You look as if you took a swim in some lake!”
I’m envisioning what it would have been like,
had she been down in the icy depths of Big Bear, as opposed to me.
Or worse yet for her, with me.
The thought puts a smile on my face. “Sorry I’m
so late. I got caught in a flash flood, east of the city. Christmas shopping.
But now that I’m here, you ladies are welcomed to go back to your spa
“As if,” Hayley mutters. “Our pedicures are
ruined! See?” She arches a foot in my direction.
Her paint job looks fine to me. It’s even got
some jewel inlays. A whiff of Hayley’s breath confirms my suspicions. Not only
were they done with their mani-pedi’s, they had time to hit a happy hour as
They’re lucky I’m in a holiday mood. “Yeah, your
foot is quite a mess. Let me make it up to you. Why don’t you ladies finish up
with your appointment? Penelope, I don’t mind Cheever hanging with us for
another hour or so. He can stay for dinner, too.”
Penelope purses her lips as she considers my
generous offer. The tilt of her head brings the others into a huddle with her.
If it were a full moon, I’d be convinced that I was watching the first scene in
Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Granted, I
don’t hear any chanting of Double,
double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble. Instead, they’re
debating the cons of leaving Penelope’s precious cargo in my obviously
not-so-capable hands with the pros of downing yet another pitcher of mojitos,
possibly delivered by a bow-tied but bare-chested waiter at their favorite
watering hole, the Hilldale Chippendales Club.
The waiter has nothing on Jack. This is
blatantly obvious when his Lamborghini comes roaring into the parking lot.
His deep green eyes scan every face, but his
boyish grin breaks out only when, finally, he catches sight of me behind the
In a flash, he’s out of the car. His long,
muscular legs moves like pistons as he runs to me. Tall and broad-shouldered,
he arches down over me as he takes me into his large, strong arms. His deep, hot
kiss leaves me limp with the longing that comes with the realization that life
is too fleeting, and passion is its most precious reward.
Our love spell is broken by Morton’s hiccup.
When I open my eyes, I find Jeff and his friends
staring at me, as if I’m some sort of exotic creature. My son is still
fascinated that there is actually someone in this world who sees his mother as
an object of desire.
Mary’s look doesn’t waver either. It’s not the
wide-eyed grin of her brother’s, but a scowl. “Maybe you two should get a room,”
she mutters under her breath.
I know what she’s thinking. At least her display
of affection wasn’t quite so public.
She’s right. The sooner we get a hold of
ourselves, the better. Reluctantly, Jack and I resume the sort of practiced
nonchalance that comes as second nature to parents of tweens who are
embarrassed by every move we make.
It takes a moment for Penelope, Tiffy and Hayley
to pick their jaws up off the pavement. They still find it hard to believe the
neighborhood wet dream is married to me, the one woman who refuses to
acknowledge their superiority, let alone kowtow to the petty demands they make
through their fiefdom, the Hilldale Women’s Club.
“Well… I guess it’s okay, now that Jack’s home,
too.” Penelope’s shrug is her way of showing me she’s doing me a favor. “Just
remember my rules, Donna. Only vegan! And it’s got to be all natural. No
preservatives and nothing genetically engineered or modified! And I presume
you’ve already forgotten that Cheever is allergic to thin-skinned fruit, dairy,
peanuts, and gluten. It’s okay, since I’ve got it all written down, somewhere.”
She rummages through her purse until she finds what she’s looking for. One of
the laminated cards she carries with her at all times and thrusts into the
hands of teachers and play date parents, per her attorney’s instructions.
With threats of a lawsuit hanging over one’s
head, is it any wonder the only thing Cheever’s hosts will offer him is a glass
of filtered water?
“That’s okay, Penelope. Cheever plays at our
home a lot. I’ve got several of those cards, remember?”
What I really mean is had. After the fifth one, I’ve gotten into the habit of tossing
them in the trash. Besides, if Penelope saw what Cheever gobbled down when he’s
out of her sight, she’d faint. But hey, she’s a mom, so short of tackling her
husky little guy, I’ll gladly follow her rules.
Besides, stating the menu up front covers my
ass. “I was planning on serving tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.”
“No to the sandwiches, since they contain dairy
and gluten. But he can have the soup. Feel free to double his portion.”
As portly as Cheever is, I’m guessing he’ll ask
for seconds, no problem.
Despite recent Collagen injections, Tiffy
attempts a frown. “Can he, really? Aren’t tomatoes a fruit? And if so, aren’t they
“Oh my God! Great point, Tiff!” Penelope tears
up at the thought that she may have colluded in the demise of her own son, in
front of witnesses no less. “Do you have vegetable broth, with no noodles?”
I nod solemnly.
All three of the women give sighs of relief.
Tiffy’s empathy certainly wins her Brownie points with Queen Bee Bing, whereas
no one doubts Hayley’s loud heave has more to do with her desire to quench her
thirst and flirt with the waiter.
As they peel out of the parking lot, I glance
over at Jack. “I’m so glad you showed up! I’ve got one more stop to make before
the store closes. Would you mind taking the kids home?”
Even as he chastely kisses my forehead, his
smile twists into a grimace. “No can do, Now that you’re back on the radar
with, I presume, mission accomplished.”
I toss out a thumbs-up.
“There’s another major fire to put out, Donna.
Ryan wants everyone in Acme’s offices as soon as we can get there.”
“But what about the kids? And Trisha needs a
“Tell you what, I’ll get Ryan and the others to
meet us at our place in, say, half an hour. In the meantime, go run your errand
with this bunch, and I’ll grab Trisha from Janie’s house.”
“That works for me. The store with the only
Furby left in all of Los Angeles closes in twenty minutes. If we leave now, we
still have time to make it.” I turn to the kids. “Okay, gang, climb onboard.
We’ve got to make one stop before we go home.”
As they scurry into the car, I grab Mary’s arm
before she has a chance to climb into the back row of the SUV, next to Trevor.
“You’re riding shotgun. The Smith brothers can sit all the way in the back.
Jeff and Cheever, take the middle row.”
“Not fair!” Jeffrey protests. “Cheever farts all
the time, and it smells like tofu!”
Mary also opens her mouth to argue, but closes
it just as quickly when she sees the look on my face and realizes I mean
I wonder if the store sells gas masks and
chastity belts, too.
(c) 2012 Josie Brown. All rights reserved. This excerpt may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission from Josie Brown or Signal Press Books (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Housewife Assassin's
Killer Christmas Tips
(In online bookstores now!)
’Tis the season for murder, mayhem and mistletoe! There will be no peace on Earth if Donna and Jack don’t find a shipping container filled with heat-seeking missiles.
He presses the zipper into my skin as he inches it up, ever so slowly. When he is done, I feel his lips grazing my neck. They linger there as he breathes in the scent of my skin, sweat, and disgust.
How I long to smash that champagne bottle over my host’s head, but seriously, what kind of guest would that make me?
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