You can hear me read this story on episode #59 of R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast. The story prompt this time was “newspaper, cigarette, scotch”.
A note about the word “chiaroscuro”: I debated back and forth with myself whether I should use it as a title, or if I should go for the easier to pronounce, and more to the point “Light And Shadow”. However, I had a very hard time getting a grip on this story until the word chiaroscuro popped into my head, and so I decided to stick with it.
The dictionary-definition of ‘chiaroscuro’:
the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting.
an effect of contrasted light and shadow created by light falling unevenly or from a particular direction on something.
Ben always slips the coat check girl at the Chiaroscuro Club an extra twenty bucks when he goes there on Friday nights after finishing work at his art studio.
Her name is Lou, and it’s not like he thinks the money will buy him anything extra. She’s not that kind of girl. But he likes the way she reminds him of Ava Gardner when she smiles, and he likes the way she dresses, too, always in silk charmeuse, impeccable and eye-catching, even in a club where everyone dresses as film-noir as possible.
Tonight, when Lou reaches for his coat, her sleeve rides up revealing an old bruise on her upper arm, violet fading into green.
Ben has seen bruises on her before, scratches too. He asked her once and she said she has a dog. Ben could tell she wasn’t telling the truth but hasn’t asked again: he just thinks she’s the kind of girl who deserves better.
He sits down at the bar with his usual scotch and newspaper. From his seat, he can still see Lou at the coat-check. She’s wearing her red dress. Sometimes the dress is black. Ben prefers the red.
Whenever he paints Lou, and he often does, he paints her in the red dress. He’s hung a few of those paintings at his gallery shows and they always sell. Sometimes he paints her naked, too, but he knows that’s self-indulgent and he keeps those pictures to himself. Yet in all his paintings, he’s never quite managed to capture the way Lou really looks. There’s always something missing, but he can’t figure out what it is.
Ben orders a second scotch right away. That’s unusual, but he has a present for Lou and figures he needs the extra courage. It’s a silver bracelet set with green stones that he found at an antique store. Gold might suit her complexion better, but it’s vintage: something she might have bought for herself, he thinks, if she could afford it.
Lou is gone when he downs the second scotch. She always heads out for a smoke about this time, and when Ben slips outside she’s on the corner with a cigarette, patting the pockets of her coat.
“Need a light?”
Ben doesn’t smoke, but he’s carried a lighter since the first time he saw Lou smoking. She has to steady his shaking hands around the lighter because he is reeling from her scent: a heady perfume that clings close to her smooth skin.
The husky voice, the glinting teeth, and the look on her face when she inhales makes Ben catch his breath.
This close, Ben can see a ragged scar on her left collarbone, peeking out of her décolletage when she crosses her arms. Knife, he thinks, and shudders. Or maybe vicious enough to be a bite.
His fingers brush the scar tissue beneath the silk. He can’t help himself. It’s her scent, the closeness, that makes him overstep.
Who would hurt you? he thinks, anger and desire tangling deep inside.
Maybe he spoke the words out loud. Lou looks up. Her eyes darken with fear, or pain, or maybe rage. Almost he might believe that there is a hint of fire between her lips, a heat within that has nothing to do with tobacco.
Ben turns. He runs. Runs until he doesn’t know where he is. The smell of Lou is still inside him when he stops.
That night, in his studio, he paints in a frenzy, and everything is Lou. He wakes up with her face everywhere: pencil, charcoal, oil. None of them are any good. Except one: oil on canvas, chiaroscuro style. Fitting, he thinks.
Lou’s face is light and shadow, her body a slip of red, and it is the best picture of her he’s ever painted, one that finally captures the way she looks. The only thing marring the perfection is a dog: grey, wolf-like, lurking in the shadows behind her.
Ben knows he can’t have painted that dog – he never paints animals. It’s almost as if it’s crept into the picture by itself while he slept. He hangs the picture on the wall anyway, and for days he cannot paint, cannot work. He puts the painting away, but Lou’s eyes, and the dog’s, follow him everywhere even so.
He stays away from the Chiaroscuro Club for weeks. When he finally goes back it’s a Thursday and Lou’s not there. Another girl takes his coat.
He wheedles Lou’s address from her. It’s a house on the worst side of town, surrounded by an unkempt hedge. The gate is rusted, screeching. It’s dark. He can just make out the porch and the door. He knocks. Knocks again.
When he turns to leave, Lou is standing just inside the rusty gate, as if she’s waiting for him. In the light of the full moon she looks just like in his painting: shadow and light, slip of red.
“Who is it?”
Her voice is rough and when Ben walks closer he can see that she is sickly pale. Like she needs someone to take care of her, he thinks and somehow that makes him feel better. There’s a smell about her tonight, too, but it’s sharper, rougher than last time.
“It’s Ben. From the club. I…I have something for you. I think you’ll like it.”
She opens the box. There’s a gleam of silver, and then a growl. Ben looks around for a dog until he sees Lou’s face.
The word twists into a laugh, then back into a growl as everything changes in the moonlight. And when Lou finally embraces him, like he’s always wanted, there is no silk, no smooth skin, no gleaming hair. There are only savage claws and ragged fur, as the dress slips off Lou’s lupine body and her sharp teeth snap at his throat.
© Maria Haskins 2016.
The cover art for this story is a photo of Ava Gardner from 1947.