In the beginning, there is dust. Everywhere is a soft grey coating: walls, brass hand-rails, brass lamps. Following the whorl of the wooden doorways like the guts of clouds; the carpet sneezing a cloud of the stuff with her every step. They pass one of the wall-lamps and in the sudden ellipse of light Inez sees that the valet is dusty too, laid thick on his shoulders and caught in his greying hair. He does not blink.
"It's as if I were being led about by the nutcracker man," Inez snipes, "put into storage when not in use." The valet smiles, or at least, she thinks he does. The dust makes everything hazy, unfocused, like a landscape viewed through clouded glass. It's a curious thing, she thinks, to feel as if you were the only real thing left in the world.
"I suppose you were rather middle-aged when you started here," she says a moment later, when the silence lays as thick as the dust. "Or do you age? You don't sleep but you grow old?"
"Oh, no, mademoiselle," he says, "in fact I am quite young," and for the first time Inez looks, really looks.
With a hazy sort of horror, she realizes that the hair she once thought was silvered with age is a delicate mass of cobwebs.
"You look quite ugly like that, you know," she says. "As if you can't even be bothered to keep up appearances. A doddering old man."
"Perhaps," the valet says, with a small, private smile.
"Why did you leave the room?"
Inez shrugs and touches the brass door-plates.
"They were awful," she says. "They were fake."
"Do you think they're in love?" he asks.
Inez thinks about the letter-opener in Estelle's delicate hands, and the way Inez was pushed out of the room but really never left.
"I doubt it," she says.
And for a moment there is only the shush-shush of her steps. Inez is sliding her hand against the wall. Every step is a reminder of weightiness as shoulder follows chest, arm follows shoulder; muscles pulling and popping and finally following, grotesque and human and real. She will not fade like a watercolor-ghost. Every spot of dust that lands on her is brutally scrubbed off.
"I wonder what they'll do, with you gone," the valet muses.
The wallpaper in the hallway is peeling at the corners, oyster-pink. Inez presses harder - harder! - until she can feel past the paper, to the bones of starch beneath.
Her mother was Basque, and was never entirely real, but flickered at the edges of Inez's life: a projection of a woman in a straight-backed chair. Leaning her chin against her dry, papery hand and saying, "My countrymen are dying. My countrymen are dead." Smoking cigarettes that made her cough black and shining-wet like guts left on the butcher's floor. Hating her husband. Missing home.
Saying: "I named you after the saint."
Saint Ynez, strung up on a stake that refused to burn. Lady of virginity; of purity. Patron of raped girls and gardeners.
(In the nursing home, Inez' mother seems even less real than ever.)
"I hate my name," Inez says at the end of every visit, because she can say it again and again, and for her Alzheimer's-struck mother it will never be a repetition. Instead, a film reel rewound and started at the beginning, tacky with hopes of a different ending.
Always, though, her mother giggles and pats her hand. "Tout ce qui a un nom existe vraiment," she whispers, conspiratorially. "Il est adur, toujours, adur."
"I am quite cruel," she had told them.
(Dying with her sleepy face pressed against her lover's neck.)
Inez has never put much stock in physical sensations. Words were harder, harsh and satisfying, and compared to the echoes they left behind, tiny breath of sound stretched to the inevitable eternity - (Inez has always known words lived forever) - well, bundles of nerve-endings always seemed so small, so constrained.
Now, though, her eternity and entirety, they're both the rasp of her dragging hands, the slight swing of her hips. This rocking tilt of movement, left foot right foot left right left, and the wet throb of life left in her groin. The air here has the same damp quality, warm and recycled, like a breath constantly being exhaled.
"They're thinking of me now, I know it" she says, loudly. "The coward and the baby-murderer: ah, they probably can't even bear to look at each other, thinking how I must be laughing at them. Can't even touch without me in between them. Can you show me, what they're doing now? I want to see. Show me."
"They might be making love," the valet says, kindly.
"Of course they're not, you simpleton, they couldn't, not with me there," Inez says, giddy. "They couldn't bear it."
"But you're not there anymore."
"I'm burning in both their hearts," she says, and is sure of it.
The first thought she had was: hotel. The valet has not explained and she has not asked, but the hallways they walk have evenly-spaced doors, an air of impersonality. Sometimes a door will be hanging open, and she catches glimpses of: white linen, tangled sheets.
Every so often there is a right angle, a shift in direction, and where 90 degrees would written in a child's eager, sloping hand is a lounge with scuffed tables and generic couches with cushions that slope in the middle, flattened by ghosts of waiting. In one they pass there is a projection of a man in a brown suit, sitting on the right apex of the couch. Flickering. He looks at her with a face like washed-out newspaper. Something inside her screams.
Inez is fairly sure the wallpaper pattern has, at some point, changed.
"Let me see them," she says, almost pleading. "I know you can show me, you have to be able to. They're thought this all out. They knew I would want to see."
"Say please," the valet offers.
"I don't beg," Inez says.
They have been walking for what seems like hours, perhaps days. Inez is not yet tired, but the space between steps is indistinct and dream-soft, as if she only exists while in movement. Ghostly. She can feel the edges of her fading out, fingers and toes disappearing.
"This looks different," she says.
The valet smiles, looking slightly puzzled.
"I can assure you," he says, "it isn't."
Inez has been thinking about Estelle, about the tops of her gilded breasts, and the gentle swell of them nestled in her shirt-ruffles, like islands rising from the froth of the sea. She has never been able to resist a beautiful woman; to possess them, one way or another. And she has, God, how she has burned in their hearts. How she has twisted them, until the only thing left in the world with any beauty at all was a dumpy postage clerk with stamp-gum on her fingers.
At the beginning of each romance, she gave her lover roses. They thought it loving and Inez said nothing to discourage this, but felt a thrill of perverse pleasure as she insisted that they find a vase, keep them. "To remind you of me, pet," she would say, trailing her fingers over the woman's cheek. In time, the red blooms would rot and fall off, leaving only thorns.
Those, Inez knew, would stay sharp forever.
Only once do they see someone else: a short, squat Arab woman, pushing a cart stacked with threadbare linens. The left back wheel keeps sticking on the carpet, and the protesting squeak echoes. The valet nods to her as they pass. There is dust coating her clothes, caught between the rolls of fat.
"Poor thing," Inez says. "Working all her life for nothing. Completely wrecking herself, of course. Do you hear the way she breathes, so heavy and wet?"
"Who are you talking about?" the valet asks. He sounds almost baffled.
"Ah," he says, low and urgent, "that is not a maid. That is something pretending to be a maid. It's very different."
Inez looks at the maid and it smiles with crooked, greying teeth.
There's silence, for a time. Inez forms a loose circle of fingers around the brass handrails, skipping over doors, lightly squeezing. Her hand is damp in the heat and it sticks, ever so often. She pushes the dust in front of her and imagines being a plow, feeling the damp heavy earth separate as she thrusts.
"Don't the maids ever clean?" she asks.
"No," the valet says, "they've other things that need doing. And in any case they're not really maids."
"But they're pretending to be," she says. "And if one pretends to be something one must do what that something does. Maids clean, so logically anything pretending to be a maid should clean too."
"But if that were true, there wouldn't be a difference between a maid and something pretending to be a maid. And so that can't be right, you see," he admonishes, "because it's very different."
"No it's not," Inez insists, "because people only ever pretend to be something they already are."
"So Garcin wasn't a coward," says the valet.
"Of course he is, he was, why wouldn't he be?" she snaps.
"Because," the valet says, "he was pretending to be brave."
When she was young Inez would imagine herself as the saint of her name, thirteen years old, being dragged naked through Roman streets. Her voice must have been a pitiful mewl as she begged God to make her hair grow to cover her body. And God did, of course. Made it grow and twist until it reached her feet, the curtain of hair parting only to show a delicate arm, flash of quivering thigh. Saint Ynez, whose flaxen hair made a peep show of her execution. And high in heaven God watched as old men leered at her torn throat, her budding breasts, and the pious dipped white cloths in her blood.
At thirteen, Inez was getting fucked by her boyfriend. She didn't want to, exactly; from her friends she knew that boyfriends were something you had but didn't necessarily want, or at least that was how it seemed, for all her friends complained about their boyfriends. Sex, her friends said, is all that boys think about.
It's bad and it's wrong and it's nasty, they said, but it's the only way to make them stay.
Alright, she said, fine, and when he got her in the backseat she didn't struggle, but instead thought of algebra and her mother's breath, how it was always slightly fishy. It was March, and rainy; even with the heat on, she was shivering. He rutted against the sliding-up of her, rubbing and grasping and grunting, and she thought about softer curves, and the feeling of her fingers on her own slick cunt in the dark.
"Oh my God," he said, suddenly. "Oh my God."
She pushed herself up, and the first thing she saw was his bobbing dick, dark and smeared with blood.
"Oh," she said, "I'm sorry. I should have told you."
"Oh my God," he repeated, still staring at his own dick.
"It's not anything bad, I promise, it's just that time of the month," Inez explained. "We could try again next week."
"That's disgusting," he spat.
"I said I was sorry," Inez replied calmly. "And stop trying to wipe your ding-dong on my skirt. That's rude."
"These are my church pants, you stupid bitch," he said, his voice high and panicked. "I can't get blood on them. What will my mother think?"
He drove her home with one hand on the steering wheel and one hand holding up his dick, angling it so no blood would run onto his slacks.
"You know," Inez said, strangely detached, "it's a good thing that it's too late for anyone to be out on the street. You're veering all over the place."
She would spend the night underneath her locked window, too tired to find another way to sneak back in. The next morning her neighbors would find her there, curled into a J among the tulips, like a broken faucet, water leaking rust-red.
By now the heat has become stifling. The dust sticks to her sweaty skin no matter how hard she tries to scrub it off, and the air around them shivers. Inez peels off her sweater and ties it around her waist.
"It's so hot," she breathes.
"You could just leave that," the valet says, pointing at her sweater. He does not seem to sweat, or even feel the heat. "Someone will pick it up."
"I might need it," she says.
He smiles, and pats her shoulder. The act sends up a cloud of dust from his sleeve.
"You know, you people are really quite funny," he says. "You all say the same things."
The halls stretch endlessly on, only occasionally turning, right angle after right angle, the geometry of Hell. Turning, and turning, until she's sure she's seen that door before, walked this hallway, dragged her fingers in the dust of a thousand ghosts and left some of her own, they keep walking and inside she's screaming to stop, limbs heavy, she can feel herself disappearing with every step that takes her farther away from that room but Inez keeps going, she must, and wherever they're going it must be around that corner, or perhaps the next one, she just has to round that turn and then -
Despite what Plato may say, there is nothing divine about a circle.
"Show them to me," Inez orders him, again.
He doesn't reply.
"They're still there, aren't they," she says. Her voice is high and tight. "They can't even touch. I'm still there, you see, I'm still in that room with them."
The valet smiles, silent. His lips are grey-veined where dust has worked into the cracks.
"I just have to see. That's all. I just need to see them," Inez repeats, desperate now. Shouts: "I need to know!"
"There's no need to fuss, mademoiselle," he says. "We're almost there."
Her arms and legs are coated with dust, now. Inez remembers someone - perhaps a lover - telling her that house dust, the grey and downy stuff of this place, was made mostly of human skin cells. That her flat was probably coated with years' worth. Inez had lain back and watched pieces of people long dead drift in the sunlight over her lover's bed.
"People talk about ectoplasm and phantoms," the lover had said, stroking Inez's hair, "but they're wrong. Those are the real ghosts, there. In the dust."
What happened to her, Inez wonders, and then remembers. Oh.
"What are you thinking about?" the valet asks.
Inez rubs her fingers together, feeling the flakes shift and stick.
"I'm thinking about the woman I killed," she says, flat. "Florence."
"Wasn't she the one who killed you?" he asks.
"I'm starting to think I killed myself," Inez says.
Right now, Estelle is sitting on her couch, biting her fingernails. Her hair is a mess and her lipstick is crooked, and Garcin will not speak to her, will not even face her. Will not be able to touch her, without touching Inez.
And that's what Inez believes. That's what she has to believe. The alternative is just too horrible.
"How many people have been here?" Inez asks the valet. "How many people have you led through these hallways?"
The valet looks at her and when he speaks, his voice is strangely sad.
"Too many," he says.
They turn another corner.
"I didn't want to leave," she says, suddenly. "You have to know that. I didn't want to leave them, I was going to stay, but Estelle pushed me out. She stabbed me, with the letter-opener you left. She stabbed me, and pushed me out the door, and stabbed Garcin when he tried to stop her."
"I know," he says, soothingly.
"You must know that," Inez repeats, brokenly. "You have to understand."
"I do," he says.
"Good," she whispers. She can barely see him for the heat-shimmers in the air. "Are we almost - are we almost there?"
"Yes," he says. "We're almost there."
They turn the corner, but instead of another long hallway there is only a single door, slightly scuffed. The air bucks and rolls with heat. When she touches it, the doorknob leaves blisters on her fingers.
"What's happening?" Inez asks.
"We're going to meet my uncle," the valet says. "He's in there."
"It's very hot in there," she says. "I can feel it. It's burning hot."
He shrugs, moves to twist the doorknob, but Inez catches his hand, holds it for a moment. His skin, she notices, is dry and papery.
"Tell me what they're doing," she says, not meeting his eyes. He opens his mouth to protest and she adds, "please."
There is a pause, and then he says, "They're making love. Garcin is touching Estelle's thigh, stroking circles over her back, and she is kissing him. Her pulse flutters. Now he is taking his hand and touching her, between her legs, very gentle and soft. She is sighing. Her eyes are bright, and she has wiped off her lipstick. He's kissing her collarbone, telling her how beautiful she looks, like this. He is saying he loves her."
Inez is silent for a moment, and then looks up at him. Her face is lit with a faraway little smile.
"Thank you," she says.
"You're very welcome," he says, kindly, and the door opens.