Harlan Ellison

Lady Bug, Lady Bug

IVORBALMI FOUND THE PARTY already in progress when he arrived back at his studio. “Studio” was a lofty coloring for a colorless loft, but in the New York of that season, so vastly in flux with all the right people either just returning and unsettled, or moving to the Coast, to Europe, especially to the Maritime Alps — Ivor Balmi’s “studio” was one of the few places to go for stimulation. For all to go, that is, but Ivor Balmi; to him, the parties — the interminable, dull-gaudy brawls with rising laughter and empty tears — were hunting sessions.

For tall Ivor Balmi, whose eyes had a caked look of European deprivation and a glistening look of American hunger, the parties not only served to pay his rent, but furnished him with fresh prey. It was simply too much trouble, the barbaric dating and picking-up, the ritualistic fencing and prancing so necessary to get a girl within reach.

Ivor Balmi was very much a self-contained man, and his interest in women was on an elementary level: they were sex. He felt no warmth for them, felt no desire to do for them or give to them or have them around when they became complicated. It was a very transitory warmth Ivor Balmi sought.

He came through the hall, ignoring the two college students in madras Bermuda shorts, propped against the wall sharing a rope-bound bottle of Chianti and some Jeremy Bentham philosophy. It was the usual crowd. The ones who had come to pick up someone clean and not too clinging, others who needed the heat and pulse of a party … a get-together … a something-outside-loneliness; and the ones who needed to watch. Ivor hated them the most, the watchers. Self-styled Isherwoods. “We are cameras,” they proclaimed, seeing superficialities, lacking the perceptivity to understand or apply what they had seen. They were, to the frozen soul of Ivor Balmi, voyeurs in the game of life. Unable to detach themselves as he did, unable to novocaine their emotional umbilicus, they sought halfway answers in subjective inadequacy. Too many knothole-peepers. Seekers after clichés.

Someone had turned up the hi-fi and, of all things, Bobby Short, mi-God!It was a bedlam; not as bad as three weeks ago but still fetid with wearing-off under-arm deodorant, frantic perfume, and the stink of slowly disintegrating egos — the smell of clothing caught in the rain. Tight. Hot. Desperate. Nasty. He stumbled over a girl who had passed out, her pearls caught up under her nose and over her forehead. He looked at her for a passing-overhead instant and went on through the crowd.

Someone shouted “Hey, Ivor!” and it was Jeff who had thrown the party (who would donate half the two-bucks-per-head door charge to Ivor’s rent fund); Ivor Balmi waved a hand in the direction. Another shout, and it was one of the girls he had kept overnight several weeks before. She had called four times; he had ignored her.

With the intense purpose of an animal streaking for safety in the bush, he wanted the sanctuary of his bedroom, and struck toward it shouldering them aside one after another.

He saw her leaning against the wall, being talked at.

Grover was talking at her, in his coming-on-strong way. She was letting her eyes wander. To anyone but Grover it would have been a signal that he was not getting through. Yet Grover continued to come on.

She wasn’t young, but there was youth about her. She was not beautiful, but she had known beauty of several kinds. Her hair was caught up in an auburn bun at the nape of her neck, held in place by a tortoise-shell clip. Her face was long and the chin spade-shaped. The hair and the face were adjuncts to her cheekbones, wondrously attractive, high and round features that commanded attention particularly when (as now, gratuitously) she smiled (Grover welcomed it, took it as a go-ahead) and inclined her head (in boredom), catching a sheen of light across them, shadowing the eyes.

The eyes caught Ivor Balmi and she let them widen.

She broke into Grover’s explanations of inconsequentialities to murmur something. Grover turned and tracked the crowd with his dull little brown marmoset eyes, finally picking out Ivor, “You, Ivor, c’mere a minute, baby, I want you to meet someone.”

He continued walking, side-stepping. When he reached the bedroom he went in, slammed the door behind himself, and tossed the books littering the bed onto the bureau. Then he tossed himself onto the bed, and fell asleep immediately.

The door opened very quietly, the woman stood looking down at him with a particular peculiar expression on her planed light-and-shadow face, then just as quietly closed the door behind her, and went back to the party.

There was an air of resigned boredom about her: she was determined to wait out this charade. More important things were coming.

Ivor Balmi, wrapped in the security of his aloneness, slept the sleep of the lazyweary. Later, he would paint. Badly, but that was as he wanted it. Always; badly.

In the dream, there was a newspaper caught by the breeze, lifted from the sidewalk and slapped across his face. In the dream, he pulled it free and stared at it: the newspaper was blank. In the dream, he smiled, then awoke.

Awake, he saw her leaning against the closed door, her legs crossed, the cigarette just coming away from her lips.

“Do I know you?” he asked, half-rising.

She gave him a smile totally unlike the smile she had given Grover, and did not answer.

Ivor Balmi swung his legs off the bed, and rose. His hair was mussed, his shirt wrinkled and tacky from sleeping in it. The time seemed to be much older than any time he had known before. He felt something was wrong.

Then he recognized it.

The party was over. There was no sound from the other rooms. Silence in the land of Ivor Balmi. Silence, and this woman who stared at him, her lips saying he was — what? A fool? A wastrel? A sex-symbol,the Ivor Balmi? What?

“They’ve gone,” he said. There was no fear in him, in fact, no determined interest. His observations were one and the same with reality. If the woman was here, it was for one reason, essentially. If he felt like one that night, if he felt like that one that night, then he would include her in the worldview. If not …

He moved to the door and she stepped aside, letting him open it. In the huge living room, lights still burned, and a couple had fallen asleep, still joined, on the big battered sofa by the window.

Ivor Balmi’s loft had been a bare box when he had moved in, and through the device of liberating old furniture placed out for the rubbish collectors in front of the more expensive apartment buildings, he had been able to furnish it, if not in style and luxuriance, at least in moderate comfort.

That comfort was now being enjoyed by half a dozen dozing drunks — one on the homemade window seats, one on the long table, and four on the floor — and of course, the couple on the sofa. Ivor walked to them, and nudged the man with his knee.

“Jeff, you got my rent?” he looked down at the nude figure, his hand extended. The figure mumbled something.

“Sleep like hell,” he said quickly, “either get it up or get out of here.” Jeff struggled free of the girl, who mewed sensitively, rolled over, and exposed a pimpled backside.

“Jeesus, Ivor, you coulda let me sleep, couldn’tcha? I’d of given it to ya in the morning …” He tapered off embarrassedly. Balmi stood with hand outstretched, his face turned elsewhere. He simply was not interested.

Jeff went to his pants, thrown carelessly over a beaded lamp, and fished some bills from a side pocket. He gave them to Ivor Balmi, who counted them twice. Then the naked figure returned to the sofa.

The girl had sprawled, would not move. Jeff slipped to the floor and fell asleep once more, his head propped against the front of the sofa. They snored in the same key.

Ivor Balmi returned to his room, closed the door tightly, and turned to his bed. The woman was sitting on the side, still smoking, her legs crossed, her skirt primly over her knees.

“I’m going to sleep,” he said. “Get out.”

“I want to talk to you,” the woman said. She had very grey eyes. They were constantly being lost in the shadows.

“Out,” he said, slipping past her on the bed. He lay down, removed his sandals, and placed his street-dirty feet well within range of her.

“I’m Meg’s mother. I want to talk to you.”

For a long time he lay there staring at the water scum on the ceiling. Then he remembered who Meg was. “She isn’t here, go away, I’m tired, I’ve got a painting to finish tomorrow. Scram.”

The woman snubbed out the cigarette on the orange crate serving Ivor Balmi as an end table, and said, very softly, “Either we talk, or I go to the police tomorrow. Meg is only sixteen.”

Ivor Balmi shut his eyes very tightly. The woman did not go away, the evening did not get cooler, the faint smell of kitty litter somewhere in the room did not disperse. “You don’t really think I give a damn, do you?” he said.

“Jail?” the woman offered. Anhors d’oeuvre.

Balmi shrugged. “I’ve been there.”

The woman turned halfway on the bed, looking down at him now. “Mr. Balmi, when my husband died, he left me a great deal of money. I’ve been unable to find things to do with it except to indulge myself and my daughter.” Balmi saw that was so: her suntan was the sort enjoyed only by wealthy women able to afford the time and locale for sun-reflectors behind the ears; an all-over tan; it fitted her lik ...

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