Fiction: The Patron
By Daniel Mowery
“Life is in earnest, and always has been.”
- Richard Wagner
As the bright lights fall into a doze and the heavy velvet curtain recoils from the dressed stage, I turn in my box to see where the real show is about to commence. I own the darkest box suite in the opera house, one of my innumerable guilty pleasures. From this shadowy precipice I can see the hidden, secret performances in the forward boxes, the cheaper seats below. The guileful hands, shuffling fabric, parting lips and legs, the slightest of movements ruffling like panting whispers through a dying wood, the illicit trades, transfer of trust, all the reprehensible little things they think they can get away with in the dark on their romantic evenings among the elite, the cultured, the formal, the harsh hand of etiquette and posterity. Money exchanges, secret letters of love and confession and secrecy, patrons brashly bounding about their crooked arms filled with women, men, maids, servants, colleagues, and cousins they should not be. They think they are so clever, divulging their little diversions in the dark rows of the auditorium. But I see them all, I know them all, I remember and relish it as a father wolf over its blood-stained brood.
I lift my opera glasses, enjoying the sensual feeling of the warming silver through the white silk gloves, at the second most discreet box, invisible to all, except for my perfect perch. This box is one that I reserve and gift especially. The couple therein are my dates for the evening, at my invitation and benefaction. As the orchestra begins the ghostly, melancholic prelude to Tristan und Isolde, plaintive proclamations of strings and woodwinds bleating and lingering, quietly fading as hot, heavy, low breathes, I can see my guests taking advantage of their placement, their gift that I have given them. Just as I had designed.
Truly, I tell you, I have planned this with more care, precision, and exaction to detail and vision than any production the opera has ever staged below. I have set the scene with pique and delight, lovingly tutored and instructed my beloved actors, months of planning and spending and subtle guidance. To finally see the debut, it’s one and only glorious run for its private audience, my goodness, will be sensational.
By my graciousness and good will, it is the Lady Mandeau and her son that I have cast in the roles for the night, here together on one of their infamous dates. Whatever happened to the husband, Sir Mandeau, not many know. A mysterious end at sea, leaving the widow and son a small sum of money, an apartment without servants, and no social prospects. Suddenly alone without aid or income, they carried on with the diminishing pittance, praying for a miracle, continuing with the life of extravagance and diversions that they knew no deviation from. They were a sick puppy, taken from the breast a moment too soon, and left under the barn alone and cold and frightened. Desperate for any warmth and succor, even by the butcher’s hand.
I found them a year ago, and I saw their delicious potential. They were fruit just before the ripening, all they needed was to be plucked and prepared, so they could be devoured with all the appreciation to flavor and succulence they deserved. Their mother and son dates had been a sweet habit of theirs when he was young, dressed in his tiny little suits, the mother taking him to theaters, dances, parks, luncheons. She cooed over her sweet little gentleman, handsome and kind and just like his father. Certainly, he was most attractive. Delectable, even. That was when Sir Mandeau had been alive. When the gardener was gone, the branches had no choice but to grow askance and wild. The boy was growing now, a strapping, sickly lad of sixteen, and yet unmarked with any aspirations, connections, tutelage. Trapped and suffocating under the wing of the jealous mother swan.
As the years went by, and their money began to wane, and prospects withered in the whispers of the widow’s erratic behaviors, the mother and son dates continued, though their dresses and suits began to dilapidate, gathering stains and smudges and minute tears the way a stray dog grows filthier as it trudges through the gutters. The boy grew taller, his face sallower, full of deep shadows and resentment. Exquisite uncertainty, luscious demureness, his mind trapped in its boyish outfit as a weight in his soul smeared beyond its years. You can see it in the hollow pleas in his cold eyes. His body shriveled as he stretched, which I find scrumptiously perfect. Some of my masked confederates in my pleasure halls prefer them plump, or muscled, but I enjoy the sharp curves and hard jut of bones. We agree on that bittersweet delicacy of desperation, but I myself prefer the meat to be marinated well in advance. One must need the patience for such divine flavor. As in vice as in virtue, you reap what you sow.
I love them, these inferior beings of the abyss, and I long for their longing, to draft deeply of their wretchedness, and I take their filthy, shaking hands, and I help them to grow and ripen and bloom into the ambrosia that lay just underneath the shadows of their trials and trespasses, from the depths that only I can help them reach.
I began courting them, complimenting the mother on her dresses, her wonderful son, agreeing that he was, in fact, a perfect gentleman. All it took was a kind word, a glance at my luxurious suits, the diamond cufflinks, my golden pocketwatch, for reassurance, and just a little attention to her beauty frayed by desperation and paranoia, and the Lady Manduea was clay, moist and ready to be molded, pitiable and grateful. I visited their shabby estate, a once-lovely structure degenerating into a hovel, put a little money into their pockets with an untraceable stipend, inviting them about as my guests of honor, encouraging the mother as I discovered her eccentricities for myself, finding to my great delight that many of them and the disturbing rumors accompanied were true. I indulged her, and validated her fears, her desires. Yes, her lovely son did look just like his father. Yes, she was the perfect mother, doting on him, covering him in kisses, how sweet to still bathe him and teach him rigorously how to treat ladies as he grew into a young man. The world would take him away, if it could, and she was excelling as protector and mother and lover. In her eyes was exhaustion, eagerness to please, the absolute need to be loved and wanted, and I gave where I could, and spurred on her own ventures of love and degeneracy by her own hands for all else.
To the lad, in the moments I could get her claws off him, I began my work. I had taken him to one of my pleasure houses, but he could not bring himself to betray his mother, her perceptions of his gentlemanly stature. All for the better, he only needed to taste his own cowardice, to see the treasures that exist in the world outside his own secluded familial confinement, that would always elude him as long as he loved his mother and lived under her stifling, caressing hand. I watered the seed that grew in soil of love and hatred with exactly what it needed to flourish in a brilliant, momentary bloom, exactly what it craved and loathed. Much as a mesmerist pretends to read minds, by planting thoughts in the head through casual conversation, I set the score, rehearsed the orchestra, and taught the boy his proper role as the hand of divinity, absolute and invisible. It had required diligence, patience, subtlety, but as I had greeted the pair in the lobby, I could tell my perseverance was finally to receive its reward.
She was wearing a revealing green lace gown, that I had paid for, covered in sequin trims around the plunging neckline, the diamond encrusted straps and waist-sash. It showed off her skin that was spotting and loosening with age and woe, but she wore it with a meek smile, and with a radiance of stature as if she were Helen herself, waiting for the sails to choke the horizon. With satin evening gloves, and a beautiful silk scarf of burgundy, with glitter like a river of constellations sewn by the finest seamstresses of the east, her beauty and confidence were striking by how out of place they were. It was well detectable that the beauty she felt came not from her borrowed regalia, nor her regained stature, but from the handsome young man on her arm.
In a three-piece tuxedo by the finest haberdasher, a top hat and cane and cotton gloves, one could look past the gaunt, skeletal profile, the reek of sadness and hopelessness, and see a young man, with curly hair and dazzling eyes. One could see the potential a young man could have, if given the right tutelage, the right opportunity. A perfect gentleman, in other words.
I partook of my delicacies, left by the attendee before locking the door and leaving me unperturbed and alone. As instructed, as always. A glass of champagne, the finest cocaine money can buy, a small syringe of diluted heroin and tourniquet. These indulgences are, of course, just a means of seasoning the main course, of warming and sweetening the blood as it will soon be pumping hot and thick through my veins, for joy is not in things, it is within us. I watched them as I enjoyed my morsels, slowly savoring them throughout the prelude; the stage set, the orchestra warmed up, the characters introduced, the conflict arranged, the promise of romance and violence to come, waiting for the action to begin. I raised my glasses again.
The two figures were leaned sleepily onto each other, framed in by the porcelain white of the box, the ember orange gleam of dim gold from the intricacies of the opera house decals, the statues of cupids adorning the wings with plump, grimacing faces under lit by the lights of the orchestra pit. I could see the mother’s hands, stroking his hair, pulling his head onto her bare chest. His eyes were to the stage, glazed, his mouth trembling. I could feel the stir in myself as her hands moved his, her own wandering, his hair, his arms, his chest, his legs. In the dark, the light of the stage just barely glistening off her painted lips I could make out the shape. Such a gentleman. His face growing hot and enraged, purpling in the dim light.
On stage, Tristan and Isolde boarded the ship, learning of their tragic history and violent connections, not yet realizing the peril their bodies and hearts were soon to be in, unaware of the painful designs fate had drawn for them in love and longing and loss.
Then, as I knew she would, the Lady Mandeau began to slide down her seat, leaning on her son now, sinking lower and lower. I moved to the edge of my own, and the boy, looking down at his mother’s head with a hateful sneer, fulfilled his role, grasping the roots of my subliminal instruction as if he were the wielder of the pen of his own story, and twisted her scarf in his fists, and pulled.
This was it, my indulgence and enjoyment for the night, my romance, my passion, my performance and design, my art come to glorious and carnal delight, the overwhelming catharsis of fulfillment and completion. I fell onto my knees, the dark scuffling visible only to me. Unaware were the orchestra, the performers, and the perverted masses below us, their faces now more falsified than the masks that I knew many to wear in the dark alleys and dim halls of sin that I commanded. With the tremulous feel of white silk on my sensitive skin, the opera glasses trembling in my hand, I watched the boy and his mother struggle, the musical crescendo as Tristan and Isolde unknowingly drank the love potions, the swell of passion and shock as the boy looked down on his dead mother with unwanted, uncontrollable arousal visible in the misshapen silhouette of his trousers, absolute agony in the tears reflecting like icicles from his cheeks, he looked in my direction, and followed through. Yes, my boy, the script, my exquisite script. He tied the scarf around his neck, one end gleaming shaft to the golden banister, and as the final chords struck, love and hate and war and death, he leapt, and I shuddered in a grand, divine paroxysm as I willed him to look in my eyes, and the gasps of horror that rose with the lights, and the unendurable pleasure, the haze of narcotics, the rush of light, the bruise color of his suffocating face twisted into horror and despair so absolute was so beautiful and profound.
Truly, a performance of the ages, worthy of the grandest tragedies of antiquities, of the gods themselves.
It saddens my heart to see them go. But it is the way of the world. The deeper the sorrow at the end only speaks to the greatness of the joy while it lasted. I must remind myself, as I make my way home, the theater to be shut down for the night, that there is more love out there in this wide, wonderful world for me to find. This is not my first tryst, though it never grows easier to say goodbye. Then again, the pleasure never grows duller. I look forward to my future romances, who or wherever they may be. Spoiled patrons of my pleasure halls, the lachrymose in the gutters, or in-betweens and outsiders rambling in their coaches unhappy and restless. It is only a matter of time, and I am willing to wait, temperance before the indulgence. Love is endlessly patient.
Daniel Mowery lives in Greensboro, NC with his wife, daughter, and dog. He works in residential construction, and can be found writing, playing music, and spending time with his family. He received a BA in Literature & Creative Writing from Catawba College. He has been published in The Chamber Magazine, Roi Fainéant, and Suburban Witchcraft Magazine and has upcoming poetry in Spurned Zine by Gnashing Teeth Publishing.