His mother held on until her 80th birthday, a few weeks ago, although he wasn’t sure if she had much enjoyed it or even if she was sufficiently aware. She couldn’t blow out the single candle shaped like the number 80. The next target had been the nation’s birthday which held no special significance beyond it’s face value but when you’re dying you need to focus on small, short term goals like a drunk lurching from lamppost to lamppost to get home. Margaret, his mother, didn’t make it to the next lamppost so Telford found himself drinking, more or less in her honor, though that was a poor excuse since the drinking was not that unusual nor requiring of any outward significance.
Telford takes out his wallet, a billfold his mother would have called it, and from a small compartment produces a key. He opens the gate and walks into the courtyard, to the back where there is a fountain in front of an ivy covered wall. Water spurts from the top of the fountain, runs into a collecting bowl which overflows and cascades to the pond at the bottom where a pump pulls it back up through the column and out the top in an endless cycle. Or so he imagines. The fountain is a mossy green and looks very old but you can never tell because new things are sometimes made to look old and old things are reworked to look new. We should make up our minds.
He takes a seat at the wrought iron settee closest to the fountain, the hard seat pressing against his tailbone as he slouches to put his feet on the opposing chair. The air is warm and humid though not as much so as yesterday and he is a little bit drunk and has no difficulty drifting off into a shallow sleep.
Telford heard the voice, a female voice, as if from a great distance, thinking it came from his mother. He had been dreaming but the images flew from his mind as he opened his eyes after the nudge at his shoulder. She stands before him wearing a robe, his mother would have called it a housecoat, cinched at her waist. She is neither particularly young or especially old. Hints of grey in her hair, a few creases at the corners of her mouth and eyes. Attractive, still and all, with a pretty smile and kind, expressive eyes. She introduces herself as Claire. Extends her small hand which Telford examines before he takes it in his own.
“Are you okay?” Claire asks.
“Just resting. I remembered the courtyard. In passing. ”
Telford straightens himself. Takes his feet from the chair across from him. Claire sits.
“How did you get in?’
“I have a key.”
“So you live here. I haven’t seen…”
“No. I live farther down the boulevard. I lost my keys. My real keys. The apartment keys. Most likely at Ruby, the cafe, which is closed now. I’ll just rest here until sunup. An hour when it’s suitable to contact my landlord and gain entrance…. Or I’ll kill time till Ruby opens at eleven.”
“…” Claire’s mouth is agape. She looks as if she is about to speak but holds her thoughts.
“It’s not the first time this has happened, I’m afraid. Misplacing my keys. I lose things. Often.”
“I knew a couple who lived here.” Telford points to the building adjacent to the courtyard. “They gave me keys to look after the place and walk the dog while they were away. They moved. I kept the courtyard key. I like it here. It’s peaceful late at night. I hope you don’t mind. Are you going to report me?”
“No. i like it here, as well. I’m an insomniac.”
Claire says this with the solemn seriousness of someone declaring themselves a recovering alcoholic or a Jehovah’s Witness.
“They lived in unit 4,” Telford says referring to his friends. “Until they divorced. Jimmy moved first and then, later…”
“You knew her?”
“No. I live in her apartment now. Well, it’s not her apartment now. it’s my apartment now. And I live there….instead of her. I get pieces of her mail now and then. Junk. Nothing important. Solicitations from the cable company, banks offering credit cards, that kind of thing. I throw them in the garbage.”
“I imagine people in big companies writing the solicitations and sending them out and someone at the post office sorting them according to zip code and they end up in the bag of my postman who probably knows Linda no longer lives here but he has choices. He can return the letters to the post office and explain their undeliverability or he can toss them in the garbage himself, which he probably isn’t allowed to do, or he can put them in my box for me to dispose of. And most of them, these people handling Linda’s unwanted mail, believe they are doing work. A job… For which they get paid.” Words erupt from Claire like water pumped through a fountain.
“Jobs and money. So they can continue to live and get unwanted mail of their own.” Telford looks, unblinking, at Claire who doesn’t respond. “I lost my mother recently not to make an excuse for my behavior,” he says.
“I’m sorry. And here I am talking about mail.“
“No need to be sorry. It’s just that your story reminded me of the futility of life is all. And yet we cling to it desperately.”
“My oh my! What happened? I mean, I assume she died. Your mother. I assume that’s what you are referring to. But I mean how and …why/“
“Hollowed out by cancer like a fallen tree trunk in a forest. A rotting log. A modern disease, is cancer. A result of our poisonous air and water and food. Stress. Or just living too long. The why is a question out of my jurisdiction.”
“Do you want coffee?”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
Claire gathers her slight self from the chair and walks away. She returns several minutes later carrying an an old electric percolator, like the one Telford’s mother had used, and two small cups. She had changed into a pair of jeans and a light-weight sweater so thin that the pert nipples on her small breasts provoked the material. It wasn’t a come-on, Telford thought. Claire just wanted to be comfortable.
Claire pours two cups of coffee. Telford puts the cup to his lips. Sips carefully. Too hot to drink. It smells like real coffee you drink in someone’s kitchen at a dinette set on a floor of linoleum instead of the harsh, burnt liquid you order from the chain store after you wait behind the girl ordering a tall, skinny, latte with a caramel drizzle.
“I lost my mother about a year ago,” Claire says. A third and final stroke. I’d come back from living in Paris. For seven years. Almost seven years. To attend to her. I’d been back in the States for barely a month. I went in, in the morning, with her tea, I thought she was still asleep. I put the tray on the nightstand and called to her. Then I nudged her before realizing she was gone. I mean she was there in the bed but she was no longer in there. Not, no longer in the bed but in her. So I sat down and took her hand in mine. It was still warm. That was how close I had come to seeing her one last time. I mean I saw her but it wasn’t her by the time I saw her. She really hadn’t been her for some time. The strokes and all.”
“I’m sorry. I do this some time,” Claire says, lifting the coffee to her mouth.
“What I was doing. Rambling like that.”
“Have you ever seen the old t.v. show Green Acres?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
“Zsa Zsa Gabor. Eddie Albert.”
“Yeah. Maybe. I think so.”
“There was a character. Hank Kimball. He was always correcting himself mid-sentence.”
She looked at him vacantly.
“I sat and drank her tea while I waited for the life squad,” Claire said.
“Not a life squad exactly because she wasn’t alive… But that’s what they call it. A life squad that often comes to collect the dead.”
“Not a bad way to go,” Telford says.
“What do you mean?’
“In your sleep. Perhaps not knowing what is happening. My mother died an excruciating death.”
“I don’t think there is a good way to go.”
“I suppose not but, you must admit, some are better than others. Freezing to death, for example.”
“I hate being cold.”
“But you’re only cold for a little while. Then you go to sleep. And never wake up. Versus say fire. Hideous pain, I would imagine. Likely why hell, which I don’t believe in, by the way, is depicted as a place where you burn eternally.”
“Can we talk about something else?”
“That’s why I came over and nudged you, you know. I’m sorry to have awakened you. I was checking. I don’t have my glasses. I couldn’t see you breathing. I was checking to see if you were alive, you see.”
“Otherwise you would have to find a way to dispose of me. Like Linda’s mail.” Telford can visualize Claire in her glasses, her hair pulled up on her head, wearing a smart, conservative dress.
“Something like that,” Claire said.
“Do you feel cheated?”
“By your mother. Luring you home from Paris by her sickness only to die right away.”
“I never thought of it that way. I’ve thought about returning though. To Paris. To my art. I probably will. Eventually.”
“You’re an artist.”
“Of a sort.”
“I’d like to see. Your art, I mean.”
“I sold what I could and left the rest behind. Gifts to friends. I haven’t worked since I returned. I mean I’ve worked. I’m working at the art Museum. Administratively. Events.Tours. Photographing exhibits. I mean I haven’t worked as an artist. Since Paris. Since I returned to America. I can’t seem to paint anymore than I can sleep. We’re out of coffee. Should I brew more?”
“Not unless you want more. I’m fine. Excuse me.” Telford can hold it no more. He walks behind the fountain where Claire can’t see him and relieves himself on the ivy. Washes his hands in the fountain.
“I’m sorry. When you have to go you have to go.”
“You could have gone upstairs in my apartment.”
“Urine is good for plants. The ammonia. Like fertilizer.”
“I’ll have to remember that,” Claire says, laughing for the first time since they met.
“But you’re a woman. You’ll have to be careful with the cactus.”
“How did you know I have a cactus?”
“I didn’t. I just… It was a joke.”
A cat has entered the courtyard. The cat stops to stare at them. Claire extends her hand. The cat comes forward to sniff her. Rubs his cat-head against her leg. The cat looks at Telford suspiciously. Possessively. Then slinks away.
“That was Tom. The community cat. A stray.”
“He looks well fed. Cared for.”
“We all feed him. The neighbors I mean. When the weather turns cold I take him in. He appreciates the warmth and food but he gets restless, wants to be outside. Free.”
“I’m going inside. I need to force myself to sleep for a bit before I have to go to work.”
“You can come in and sleep on my sofa if you like.”
“Thanks but I’m fine. I like the sound of the fountain and the crickets. I like the warm breeze.”
“You’re like Tom.”
Claire stands and walks to the building. Before she enters she turns and says, “It was nice to meet you.”
“As well,” Telford says and waves.
He puts his feet up on the chair Claire vacated and closes his eyes.
The Puritans had settled on a broad, fertile plain beside a rich and fruitful river. The river cascaded as a waterfall at the edge of the plateau into a lush valley where the Magoondi lived. The Magoondi, though near-sighted, couldn’t help but notice the Puritans residing on their sacred land but they had watched and deliberated for several moons before making contact.
The Captain, a grizzled veteran of conflict, armed or unarmed, civil or mean spirited, foreign or domestic, had arrived with his Magoondi interpreter in the nick of time. The Captain rode into the Puritan camp on a half-blind quarter horse. He wore a worn hat, a dusty duster and ornate, nearly new, though already scuffed, cowboy boots he had won from a dwarf, with oversized feet and ambitions, during a card game at a saloon in a city far away on a nearby continent.
A pair of Magoondi emissaries had come calling, communicating with the Puritans through the Captain’s interpreter. The Captain respectfully listened from a listenable distance. The Captain had extensive knowledge of the ways of the Magoondi. When the Captain had heard enough he pulled one of the Puritan elders to his side for a private conversation.
“They offered us food,” said the Puritan excitedly.
“So I heard,” said the Captain.
“How generous of them.”
‘What? The food?” asked the Puritan. “Why would they…”
The Captain spread his arms expansively. “You’re trespassing,” he said, “This is Magoondi land.”
“But there is so much room. And so much food,” said the Puritan referring to the abundance of edible flesh of the furred, feathered, finned and fruited.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” said the Captain.
“So, I’m to refuse the offer of food.”
“No. Look.” The Captain handed the Puritan his field glasses and pointed into the distance. Through the binoculars the Puritan could see an encampment of painted and armed Magoondi warriors.
“What does this mean?” asked the Puritan.
“Refusing food is an insult. An act of ill will. A declaration of war. The Magoondi would slaughter you. That’s if you’re lucky. They’re capable of much worse.”
“What could be worse?”
“How they go about murdering you. Like rendering you blind, deaf and mute and allowing you to wander senseless among the carnivorous beasts… for a very short while. Or impaling you through the anus on poles and letting you dry in the hot sun like a cored apple. Or skinning you alive while you hang upside down. Or emasculating the men and leaving them to spend their lives gamboling about as a merry gang of eunuchs.”
“What would they do with the women?”
“You don’t want to know. They could…”
“Stop. I don’t want to know,” the Puritan said, “At least, in any event, we’ll be joining our Lord above.”
“Tell him I said ‘Hi’,” said the Captain turning to walk away.
“Wait! Wait! So we accept the food but don’t eat it?” said the Puritan.
“That would be equally offensive. This is a test of compatibility. Of accommodation. Of proper manners.”
“But they aim to poison us.”
“Look at it this way. You’re new to a neighborhood. A neighbor comes calling, with food. What do you do?”
“Of course not, idiot. It’s poison. Again. What do you do when a neighbor comes calling?“
The Puritan, slack mouthed, shrugged.
The Captain was all too acquainted with the atrophied reasoning powers of the pious.
“Listen. We don’t have time for school.” The Captain sighed visibly. “You invite your neighbor inside to share the meal.”
“They’d poison themselves in order to poison us?”
“You propose a grand feast for all and you provide the food,” the Captain continued. “Puritans are so stupid,” the Captain mumbled. But the Puritan didn’t take offense. He hadn’t noticed the slight since had been lost in his thoughts.
“Poison food! We couldn’t…”
The Captain looked at the Puritan incredulously. Shook his head in disgust and frustration. “Of course not.”
“Ah, I get it. Get in their good graces. A gesture of goodwill.”
“Hurry back to the meeting. Convey the invitation through the interpreter before it’s too late.”
The Captain sat stirring the dying embers in the fire pit. He brushed the dust from his fancy cowboy boots. He read a black bound book and sipped at a bottle of whiskey he had retrieved from his saddle bags.
After a while, the Puritan returned, smiling. “I see you’re reading the good book.”
“I’m reading a good book.” The Captain sucked hard at the whiskey.
Seeing that he had misjudged, the Puritan said, “Let me give you a copy of the best book ever.”
“That’s a matter of opinion.”
The Puritan ignored the retort. “Anyway, it worked,” he said, brightening again, “We are feasting with the Magoondi the day after the morrow. Praise the Lord. How can I thank you?”
“I’m afraid there’s more,” said the Captain.
“They’ll bring magoondo.”
“No, magoondo is an alcoholic beverage. You can tell its importance to the Magoondi by its name. It’s a disgusting elixir. You don’t want to know how it’s made. The yeast comes from their women’s nether regions.” The Captain shook his head, kicking at the ground with his boot.
“We don’t consume alcohol,” said the Puritan.
“You will this time. Otherwise…,” The Captain pointed to the warrior encampment.
“We’ll sip a little, out of courtesy, and pray to our Lord for forgiveness.”
“It won’t matter. You’ll all be drunk, happy and horny by nightfall. Especially your men and women of breeding age.”
“Our sons and daughters are chaste.”
The Captain looked at the Puritan through steely, blue-grey eyes that conveyed more than the Puritan’s experience could interpret.
“They’ll be chased for sure. You see, the magoondo is alcohol laced with a powerful aphrodisiac.”
“Good Lord!” said the Puritan.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” said the Captain.
The Captain continued to look at the befuddled and frustrated Puritan.
Sensing he was not finished by the look in the Captain’s eyes, the Puritan asked, “There’s more isn’t there?”
“Alcohol, aphrodisiac and fertility booster. Many of the women, yours and theirs, will be impregnated. The knocked up women will join their new husbands in the appropriate camp, yours or theres. It’s how they assimilate. They need to refresh their bloodline. The eyesight, you see.”
“I can’t accept any of this,” said the Puritan.
The Captain pointed toward the warriors in the distance.
“We’ll break camp first thing in the morning and be on our way to a more Godly region,” the Puritan said.
“The Magoondi are watching. They’ll be on you before you can cross the river.”
“I thought they wished us gone.’
“Perhaps in the beginning. Not now. They have examined your young men and women. Especially your women. In their bonnets and long, drab dresses that mute their soft, shapely… ” The Captain halted when he saw the stern countenance of the Puritan’s face dissolving like heated wax.
“You speak of them as cattle,” the Puritan said.
“Of a sort.”
“I must pray and sleep,” said the Puritan as he rose to retire to his tent.
The next day was consumed with preparation for the following day’s feast. Hunting, gathering, slaughtering, slicing, pickling, marinating and whatever else Puritans do to prepare a meal. Plus the felling and sawing of trees to build banquet tables. A laying out of their Sunday best which was no better than any other day’s best given the harsh, unsanitary life of a Puritan, even on a fertile plain with a beautiful, abundant river. The air was thick with tension although the Puritan had not shared his knowledge of the ways of the Magoondi with his brethren. The Puritans accomplished all they had intended and slept soundly if not securely.
The big day was upon them. The sky bright and cloudless. A big cat roamed the perimeter of the Puritan camp, eyeing a toddler lurching about with a poop-full diaper drooping on his fat thighs. His mother snatched him away.
“You’ll want to deal with that one,” the Captain said pointing to the cat, “She has tasted human flesh.” He cinching the saddle of one of the two ponies that had arrived with him.
A young woman carrying a bundle walked toward them. She was tall and thin and swayed like the mesa grasses in the breeze. She smiled at the Captain, touching his arm affectionately, before tying her bundle to the rump of one of the ponies.
“What is this?” asked the Puritan looking on.
“She’s leaving with me,” said the Captain matter-of-factly.
“So you’re taking Chastity?”
“Literally and figuratively.”
“But her parents! They’ll…”
“They’ve been told. She’s of age. She doesn’t want to be a Puritan anymore. There’s nothing you or they can do.”
Chastity hoisted herself upon the pony.
“The interpreter will stay,” said the Captain. “He’ll be of assistance. He’s one of them.”
“You don’t want to wait and see what happens? To try to help us?” the Puritan implored.
“Not on your life.”
In the rain, the water dripping from the rim of his fedora. He stops anyway, fumbling in his pocket for loose change. The man always asks for a quarter knowing that, if he is to receive anything at all, it will likely be more. What is his name? Telford tries to remember. Charles? They are out, the more ambitious or desperate and is there really a difference, even in such weather.
Thunder rumbles. Lightning streaks over the rooftops. The rain has slowed to a drizzle.
There are fewer these days, in Near North, as the neighborhood gentrifies, slowly at first but recently picking up steam. Ragged men, some women, dig through garbage for scraps to eat. Sleep in doorways. Harassed by the police, ridiculed by the newly arrived, wealthy transplants. They are, these men, as they have always been, both prey and predator.
Telford finds a loose dollar in his pocket. Hands it to Charles? who blesses him and ambles along.
Telford can see Iris at the stoop, her key inserted in the lock. Waving and waiting. Smiling and patient, pleased that he has accommodated Charles?. They have arrived simultaneously. She from working late, he from The Rook Pub.
Inside Iris props her umbrella into the corner at the foot of the stairwell. Telford shakes off his wet fedora.
In bed. He on his back looking out the window to the sky and the lightning. She on her side facing away from him. She flips onto her back.
“Is the storm keeping you awake?” she asks.
“Of course not, storms relax me.”
“Thinking about something then.”
“No. Not really.”
“I always admired your ability to sleep. Whenever and wherever.”
“One of my many talents.”
“You should list them sometime.”
“Where would I start?”
“Is that his name?”
“I’m not sure. It’s his name for the moment. Until I learn or remember otherwise. Don’t credit me with qualities I don’t possess. And, by the way, I consider compassion an attribute rather than a talent.”
“I think it’s both. I saw you hand Charles? a dollar.”
“To get rid of him. So I could be on my way. Out of the rain.”
“I don’t believe any of that.”
“You’re neglecting my destructive past.”
“We can change. Evolve. Some of us, at least.”
Iris moves closer. Fluffing her pillow in the process. She puts a dry, warm palm on his chest.
A roll of thunder. Telford reaches over an traces the scar on her cheek. It’s an affectionate gesture. A reminder that he loves her because of the scars not in spite of them.
“Should I open the window?” she asks.
“Will the rain blow in, if it starts again?”
“I don’t think so. It isn’t windy.”
“I haven’t seen lightning in a while. I wish I knew more about the weather. Meteorology and all that. The relationship between thunder and lightning and rain and wind.”
“You would want that, of course.”
“I always took things apart to see how they worked. In my youth. As a child and a young man. Problem is, once you take something apart to see how it works it doesn’t work anymore.”
“You can always put it back together.”
“No. No you can’t. It doesn’t work that way.”
“I wish we had met earlier. In our twenties perhaps,” Iris says.
“It wouldn’t have worked. I was different then. Restless. Volatile. Destructive.”
“You still were in a way. When we met, I mean. It worked anyway. In the long run. Still, I wish we had met earlier.”
“Yes. If it would have worked.”
“What regrets do you have?”
“That I wasn’t more restless.”
“And more destructive?” Iris laughs.
“I’m not sure the two qualities have to be paired. Like thunder without the rain.”
“Or the lightning?”
“Again. I don’t know how the weather works. I should have traveled more, for example. Read more. Wrote more. Met more people.”
“And fucked more?”
“Yes. Of course. But less…….. storm-fully.”
“We have time.”
“For travel. For fucking. For all of that.”
“Less time than we think. There’s always less time than you think.”
“Meaning we have less time to waste. We should leave here. Move to another country. Mexico perhaps.”
“Iceland. Uruguay. Denmark. Portugal. Someplace civilized.”
“What’s happened to this country?”
“It doesn’t work anymore.”
“Rich, powerful people took it apart. They don’t care if it works anymore. At least not for everyone. Only for them.”
“That’s called selfishness. You’re going to find selfishness everywhere in the world.”
“But in different concentrations. In different proofs. We’ve achieved 80 proof selfishness mixed with greed and anger and fear. A poisonous stew.”
“Let’s leave then. Iris concludes. Always a decisive woman.
“We’ll start planning in the morning.”
After a long pause that he thought indicated sleep, she says.
“How long will it last?”
“Will what last?”
“It has lasted this long. It’ll last as long as we both want it to.”
“But it has to be both of us. I’m tired of the off and on relationship. Let’s leave it on.”
“Right. That’s how it works. Both of us.”
“Your track record is poor. On the ‘both of us’ thing.”
“That was before. When I was more restless and volatile.”
“And destructive. When did you stop being volatile?”
“A few minutes ago.”
She snores. Softly like a kitten. Iris is a light sleeper so Telford slips from the bed on cat feet. Pulls on his trousers and shirt. Carries his loafers to the door. Slips the shoes on without socks. His watch says the pub is open for at least another hour. Telford takes his wallet from his pocket. Counts out three fives. Leaves the wallet behind.
The rain has stopped but left its aroma.
Charles? isn’t on the street. The Rook is nearly empty. Dan, the bartender, pours a Guinness as soon as Telford enters the door.
“Sleepless night?” Dan asks.
“No. Just restless.”
“So you thought you’d have a pint and think about things.”
“You got the pint part correct. My thinker is broken tonight. It doesn’t work.”
Christie from the neighborhood sits at the other end of the bar. She once worked at the other bar on Rubicon Boulevard. She used to be married to one of Telford’s band members. But things have changed. Now she’s just a bar hag who hangs out at The Rook. Christie greeted Telford with a wave as he came in.
“You in the mood for company?” Christie asks, carrying her drink with her as she deposits herself on the stool next to him.
Telford looks at her and smiles.
“Not really. I enjoy your proximity but I’m not in the mood for companionship,” he says, not looking at Christie directly.
“What’s that supposed to mean? You used to enjoy my company. A lot.”
“It means nothing. It just means don’t expect much in the way of conversation. Is that okay?”
“I suppose. I miss the old times though. I had a rough day too, you know.”
“Another time, perhaps.”
“Another time for what?” Christie’s voice is hopeful.
“To talk about your rough day.”
Christie takes her drink and rejoins the small group at the other end of the bar.
The dry thunderstorm continues. The thunder follows Telford down the street but asks for nothing that he can comprehend. In the apartment with the curtains drawn open, the moon, shining intermittently between passing clouds, provides sufficient light to undress and rejoin the bed.
This time Telford can think. About Iris. And Christie. And Charles? And Mexico. And lightning and thunder. And how to be restless and volatile without being destructive.
And without taking things apart.
Lance and Bruce are out for the evening in their new cowboy outfits. To the OK Corral to listen to a friend sing. They are greeted at the door by two men. One tall and thin, the other a dwarf who stands only to the thin man’s hip. The dwarf is muscular with an over-sized head and thick, powerful thighs and forearms.
“Check your weapons at the door,” the thin man says.
“We are unarmed,” says Lance.
The thin man reaches over and lifts Lance’s left arm.
“We are without weapons,” Lance says, laughing.
“They all say that,” says the thin man. “Frisk them Shorty.”
The dwarf frisks Lance from the waist down, stopping to fondle Lance’s new Lucchese boots. Beautifully ornate. Works of art. The dwarf moves to Bruce’s lower torso. Bruce wears matching boots which the dwarf again lovingly inspects.
“I think the appropriate term is Little People,” Lance says to the thin man.
The dwarf produces an I.D. which identifies him as Shorty. Thin man lifts Shorty to chest height. The little man frisks Lance from his hoisted position, then Bruce. From Bruce’s vest Shorty retrieves two Montecristo cigars.
“For later,” Lance says.
“Yes. Thank you,” says the thin man.
Bruce, ever the pacifist, looks over at Lance and shakes his head. Let it pass, they’re just cigars, he is indicating.
“What’s your name?’” Lance asks the thin man trying to establish cordial terms.
“You certainly are the literal type.”
“No. I don’t read much.”
“Is Kitty here?”
“Cats not allowed.”
“Dogs, though,” clarifies Shorty.
“Kitty, the singer.”
“Oh. The lady singer.”
“I think her name is Molly,” Shorty says.
“Yes. Kitty is her stage name,” Lance says.
“Yeah. She’s her,” says Slim.
Customers, mostly men, sit at tables in groups playing cards and smoking. Lance and Bruce take the only empty table, far away from the stage. A middle-aged woman with a large, high riding chest comes over to them.
“Whatcha drinking?” the chest asks.
“Sarsaparilla,” Lance says jokingly.
The chest leaves and returns with two glasses and a bottle of Rot Gut Whiskey. It says so on the label.
‘That’ll be twenty dollars.”
Before Lance can protest, Bruce gives him the look and a shake of his head. Lance produces the twenty.
Bruce feels something at his feet. He looks down. Shorty has crawled under the table and is kneading his boots. Bruce kicks at him. Shorty crawls out and slinks sheepishly away.
Two men in cowboy hats, yoke shirts and a deck of playing cards take a seat at their table. The one with the cards and a huge mustache places the cards on the table.
“What’s your game?” the mustaches asks. “Five card? Seven card? Texas hold-‘em?”
“Canasta, I’m afraid,” Lance says.
“So. Your with the show?” says the man without the mustache. He mimics the playing of canastas, opening and closing his hands in the air.
“No. The card game,” Lance says to the men. “This is a nice place,” he continues, trying to repair his reputation.
“It’s OK,” says mustache cowboy. “The pace down the road is better.”
“What’s it called?”
“The Better Saloon.”
Mustache man grabs the bottle of Rot Gut. Puts it to his mouth and takes a long swallow. Sets the bottle back on the table. Collects his cards, rises and leaves. The other man is still pretending to play canastas.
The lights dim. Kitty comes on stage with a man who sits at an old upright piano. The playing and singing begin. Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is?
After the song, Lance and Bruce applaud enthusiastically. The card cowboys turn and stare. They do not share their appreciation. Lance and Bruce take hard swallows of the Rot Gut which makes their eyes tear but gradually settles their nerves.
Slim and Shorty stroll by the table smoking aromatic cigars.
Kitty does a few more numbers to no greater effect. She is replaced by an old guy with a guitar. The old guy sings a song, that neither Lance nor Bruce have heard before, about pick-up trucks and rain and mama being run over by a train. The card cowboys are hooting and hollering and singing along.
Kitty has joined Lance and Bruce at their table. She is clearly distraught. She finishes the bottle of “sarsaparilla” and orders another one. The men try to compliment Kitty on her performance but she will have none of it.
The card cowboys are getting rowdy. Bottles clink. Some fall to the floor. The saloon is filled with tobacco smoke and loud cursing. A fight breaks out over a poker game but is quickly quelled. The mustache cowboy comes to the table and pulls Kitty roughly to her feet, trying to dance while drunk to a tune never meant for dancing. Lance rises to her defense but Bruce grabs him by the arm and gives him the look and the head shake.
Soon enough Kitty is back at the table. Her hair partially unpiled from her head. Her lipstick smeared. The front of her dress soaked and stinking from a spilled bottle of Rot Gut.
Kitty, Lance and Bruce stagger to Bruce’s car. Bruce is in stocking feet. They climb into the car and start the engine.
Shorty is waving bye from the front of the OK Corral. The top of the boots ride to the dwarf’s crotch, engulfing the entirety of his short, stocky legs.
A dark apartment. Feeble light bleeds through the door from the apartment building hallway. Nate enters first, Claudia close at his back. He flips the nearest light switch. Darkness prevails.
Nate: The light.
Claudia: What light?
Nate fumbles along the wall, nearly tripping over the leg of a chair, to the next light switch. Claudia remains in the doorway. He flips the switch.
Nate: God-damnit to fucking hell.
Nate: Come help me.
Nate: Come help me open the drapes.
He extends his hand to Claudia, guiding her into the room. They move carefully toward three street-side windows covered with heavy draperies. They pull open the drapes one by one, tying them aside with sashes. The room gradually lightens as they sash, illuminated by the moon and street lamps.
Nate: There. That’s better.
Claudia: It’s cold.
Nate: The heat. Light and heat go together.
Claudia: Heat and light. Did you pay the bill?
Nate: I think so.
Nate: I don’t remember.
Claudia: We’ll freeze.
Nate: It’s not all that cold, you know.
Nate’s voice is distant. From the kitchen. Clinking of glassware. He returns carrying a bottle and two glasses. Sets the glasses on a table. Uncorks the wine. Pours.
Nate: Here. This will help.
Nate hands Claudia a glass. Sits beside her on the sofa. Claudia sips.
Claudia: It’s sour.
Nate: It’s not more than a few days old. Drink it anyway.
They drink, emptying the bottle.
Nate: I’ll make some tea.
Running of water. Noise from the kitchen. Banging of teapot. Nate returns without tea.
Claudia: Heat and light.
Nate: Light and heat. Let’s go to bed.
Claudia: It’s too early. I’m not sleepy.
Nate: To get warm under the electric blanket.
Claudia: Heat and light. Light and heat.
Under the covers in the dark bedroom.
Claudia: My sleeping bag.
Claudia takes a bulky sleeping bag out of the closet. Unzips its perimeter. Spreads it over the bed. Climbs back in.
Claudia: See? That’s better.
Their heads disappear under the cover. Shifting and squirming. A large hillock forms under the covers. The hillock begins to undulate rhythmically. Female cries of passion. The lump dissolves.
Claudia: (muffled) That was nice.
Nate: (muffled) Wasn’t it now!
Sitting in a pub. Brushing snow from their coats and hair. A puddle is forming at the foot of their bar stools from the melting snow. The pub is warm. It is very early. There is no one else, other than the bartender, in the pub.
Nate: Did you sleep well?
Claudia: Until I had to pee.
Bartender: You two are up early.
Claudia: Heat and light.
The bartender looks at Claudia in confusion.
Bartender: What’ll you have?
Nate (looking at Claudia): You have money?
Claudia: Not much.
Nate takes money from his pockets. Places bills and coins on the bar. Claudia rummages through her purse and does the same. Bills and coins. Meanwhile, a customer comes into the pub. Takes a seat at the other end of the bar. The bartender moves away to serve him. Nate separates the money into distinct piles.
Nate: Not a lot here but it will buy us a few pints.
Claudia: Can’t we just sit and warm for a bit first.
Nate: If we don’t order he’ll throw us out. If we order too much he’ll throw us out. What the world’s come to.
Claudia: Same as it ever was.
The bartender returns. Looks at the piles of bills and coins.
Nate: Two lagers please.
Claudia: I’d rather a stout.
Nate: Okay. Two stouts then.
The bartender looks at the bundled, dripping couple and, again, the small piles of money.
Bartender: The stout is a little more than the lager.
Nate: One stout and one lager then.
The bartender serves the beers. Picks from the money. Smiles and walks back to the other customer. Claudia takes a gulp of the stout.
Nate: Drink it slowly.
Claudia: When are you turning the heat back on?
Nate shrugs. They sit for a while wordlessly drinking. They watch the snow through the window, illuminated by the streetlamp. Big flakes like cotton balls or feathers. They order another round. A few more customers have entered. Claudia is sleepy in the warmth, marinated in the stout. The pile of money on the bar dwindles slowly.
Claudia: We should get something to eat.
Nate: Eggs! Eggs are cheap.
They order eggs and toast without the bacon and fried potatoes after negotiating with the bartender. When he delivers the breakfasts the plates have bacon and hash browns.
Bartender: The cook didn’t read the ticket. I’m still charging you the same as without the bacon and hash.
Claudia and Nate ravenously engage the meal.
Nate: Should we go to your mother’s?
Claudia: Donna. Her name is Donna. You’ve never even met her.
Nate: Now would be as good a time as ever.
Claudia: We can’t just barge in unannounced.
Nate: Why not? You’re family. Family has to take family in, it’s the rule in a civilized society.
Claudia: But you’re not. (Pause) Family.
Nate looks hurt. Orders more pints. The bartender collects the dishes, scraped clean.
Claudia (while looking at the puny money remaining on the bar): Okay.
Nate: Okay what?
Claudia: We’ll go to Mom’s. Go get the car.
Nate leaves. Claudia drinks her pint. The other men at the bar ogle her. Nate returns covered in snow. Sits heavily.
Nate: It’s gone.
Claudia: What’s gone?
Nate: The car.
Nate: I don’t think so.
Claudia: Did you make the payment?
Nate: I think so.
Nate: I don’t remember.
Nate: We’ll walk.
Claudia: It’s far.
Nate: Let’s get started.
Seated at a kitchen table are Claudia, her mother Donna and Nate, drinking coffee. Nate sits to the left of Claudia, to the right of Donna. Midway between the two women. North and south in equal measure, distance and age, from each of them.
Donna: Is anyone hungry?
Nate: I wouldn’t mind.
Donna: I can make sandwiches.
Claudia: Thanks Mom.
Donna puts her cigarette in the ashtray, rises and goes to the refrigerator. She takes out lunchmeat, cheese and a jar of Miracle Whip. At the counter beside a microwave oven with the door hanging open she assembles sandwiches.
Nate: (with sandwich in front of him and looking at a half full bottle of cheap wine on the counter) Do have anything to drink?
Claudia gives Nate a harsh look. Donna rises, fetches the wine bottle and water glasses. Pours.
Nate: Thank you. Do you mind? (Pointing to the cigarette pack and matches on the table. Donna pushes the items to him as she draws a puff.)
Nate smokes and drinks and takes a bite of the sandwich.
Nate: The bread is stale.
Donna: Don’t eat it.
Nate: The sandwich?
Donna: The bread.
Nate takes the meat and cheese from between the slices of bread and crams all into his mouth. Licks the Miracle Whip from his fingers. Claudia looks on in disgust. Donna watches with awe.
Donna: So, what do you do Nate?
Donna: For a living.
Donna: What’s that?
Nate: Buying and selling.
Donna: Buying and selling what?
Nate: This and that. Anything and everything.
Donna: You’re a grifter and a womanizer, I think.
Nate: That too.
The light in the room fades. The trio sit speechless for a while. Cigarette butts have piled up in the astray. Two empty bottles of wine sit in the middle of the table.
Donna: I’m going to bed early. Claudia will sleep with me. You’ll (pointing to Nate) sleep on the couch.
Nate: Why can’t I sleep in the bed too?
Claudia looks at Nate in horror. Donna ignores him and rises to go to the bedroom.
Claudia: I’ll get a blanket and pillow for you.
Darkness for some time.
Nate can feel her presence hovering above him. The stale smell of cigarettes. She flicks on the table lamp, bends and nudges his shoulder. He pretends to sleep. She nudges harder. He opens his eyes, looks at her. She opens her house-coat. He lifts the blanket. She crawls on top of him.
Morning. Claudia stands beside Nate on the couch, clad only in panties.
Claudia: Get up. She wants you gone.
Claudia: Mother. She wants you gone.
Nate: Where will we go?
Claudia: I’m staying. I need heat and light. And a hot shower. By the smell of you, you could use one too.
Nate lifts his arms and sniffs at both pits.
Nate: You’re turning me out.
Claudia: Mother is.
Claudia looks to her mother’s bedroom. Turns back. Nate raises the covers. Claudia climbs in on top of him. The blanket undulates rhythmically. A female squeal of pleasure muted under the covers.
Nate dresses. Pulls on his long coat. Walks to the kitchen, opens the cabinet where the wine is stored. Puts a bottle into the coat’s deep pocket. Walks away. Stops. Walks back to the table. Picks up the pack of cigarettes and matches. Puts them in his other pocket. Opens the door prepared to step outside.
Claudia: I’ll call you.
Nate: Phone’s out. Light and heat.
Nate slams the door behind him.
In the Pub with a new girl. They drink pints of stout. Sharing fish and chips. Nate dumps more malt vinegar on the fish and potatoes. He swallows hard after a long drink of ale.
Girl looks at him without speaking.
Nate: You know. Buying and selling. This and that. You asked what I did. Speculating.
Nate holds up his empty pint.
Nate: Another round?
The girl goes into her purse for more money.
Nate: I’m writing a novel, you know.
Girl: Really? What’s it about?
Nate: A man and his adventures. The usual stuff of literature, you know. The man has secrets that women want to learn about. It’s rather sexual, I’m afraid.
Girl: What kind of secrets?
Nate: Ah! You’ll have to read the book. Can’t give away the ending, you know.
Girl: I’d love to read it.
Nate: When it’s finished.
Girl: I’ll read along. Maybe I can help.
Nate: No can do. You can critique the first draft but only after it’s done. I hate having someone read over my shoulder when I’m writing. Destroys the creative spirit, you know.
Girl: I’m sorry. But when it’s done…
Nate: What’s done?
Girl: The book.
Nate: Ah. Right. The book. Then you can read it. When it’s done.
Nate holds his empty glass for examination. The girl’s pint is nearly full.
Girl: Oh. Right.
The girl takes more money from her purse.
Nate: Thanks. The advance you know. The advance for the book. It should arrive in a few days.
Girl: I thought the check was from an invention, or something.
Nate: Oh that. The urea collection service and the products there-from. Tooth whitener. Skin creams for eczema and what-not. Fertilizer. Batteries charged. I told you about this?
Girl: A little. Hours ago. When we first met. I didn’t understand it.
Nate: Just as well. Keep it under your bonnet. Wouldn’t want news out…. prematurely.
Pause. They drink.
Nate: Do you like music?
Girl: Yes. Very much.
Nate: Classical? Jazz? Blues?
Girl: (Giggles) Afraid not. Rock and Roll. Show tunes. Some country.
Nate: Maybe you know my younger brother, Telford.
Girl: Croft? The Bangers? My yes. They’re playing next week at the Near North Elk’s Lodge I think.
Nate: You haven’t slept with him, have you?
Girl: Slept with who?
Nate: My brother.
Girl: That’s hell of a thing to ask. Of course not. I know of your brother but I don’t know him.
Nate: I see. Just making sure. Pause. Ever listen to Erik Satie?
Girl: Who’s that?
Nate: French composer. Debussy contemporary. He’s long dead, of course. Satie’s Gymnopedie and Gnossienne. Haunting works.
The girl looks into Nate’s eyes.
Girl: I’m afraid I…
Nate: Have you read Sartre? Wittgenstein?
The girl looks into her pint glass.
Nate: Philosophers. Ah. Not a big deal. One can’t know everything. I can help, you know.
Girl: Would you like another pint?
Nate: Yes, please. The advance, you know. Soon. Pause. Any day now.
Girl: You said you lived nearby.
Nate: Down Rubicon Avenue a bit. Toward Washington Park.
Girl: We could go listen to…
Nate: Satie? I’m afraid not. No heat or light. A life style choice until the novel is finished. An aid to my concentration and creativity.
Girl: No heat or lights? No utilities then.
Nate: Uh… not in the traditional sense.
Girl: We could go to my place but I’m afraid I have no, no…
Nate: Satie? That’s alright. We can talk instead. It’s fascinating to talk to you, you know.
The girl blushes. Nate holds up his pint glass.
Nate: We could have a couple of more pints though. Before we go. Right?
The girl nods.
Nate: Your mother, right? I’ve
Robert would be overseas for six months or more, depending on how well the project progressed and whether any follow-up work would result. He’d asked his old friend Evan, knowing his availability, to look after his flat on the second floor of a 19th century Italianate building in the heart of the city’s old immigrant district.
Robert considered Evan his equal in talent and intelligence but, perhaps due to differences in drive and perseverance, their fortunes had diverged significantly. Evan was reeling from his third failed marriage and the most recent of countless lost employments. Evan landed on his feet after each disaster but age was catching up with him and his friend of long standing feared for his mental health.
The flat was owned outright and the cost of the heat from the aging but hardy boiler in the building’s basement was allocated among the four flat owners through an annual assessment which wouldn’t come due again during Robert’s tenure abroad. There was no air-conditioning in Robert’s unit. He didn’t believe in air conditioning with the fervor of a sweaty evangelist. There was also no television or telephone. Domestic entertainment came from an ancient stereo system with a turntable, an impressive vinyl collection and an equally robust library of classic and modern fiction and history housed in what was meant to be a second bedroom.
Robert’s Luddite tendencies had been discussed. Evan playfully countered Robert’s contention that most consumer technologies were wasteful, expensive and unnatural things by pointing out that everything about modern man’s milieu from clothing to breakfast cereal was unnatural from that perspective. They had a good laugh but the hot reality of lack of air conditioning and pre-paid heat meant very low monthly utility bills. Evan’s major expenses would be food, drink and whatever he needed in the way of socializing to sustain himself. The walkable neighborhood provided everything one might need save an occasional escape from urbanity which some needed, others not.
Robert had passed the keys and a slip of paper with his overseas contact information to Evan after an introduction to Mrs. Shapiro who lived in the first floor flat and served, ostensibly, as the building’s manager. Mrs Shapiro eyed Evan suspiciously as he clutched the valise containing his meagre wardrobe. Evan who liked to imagine how people, who were getting up in years, may have looked during their flowering couldn’t get a fix on Mrs. Shapiro. She looked as if she had always been and would forever be her sixty something year old persona. He couldn’t imagine being sixty. Or forty four, which would be his next birthday.
During his surveillance of the flat he subconsciously took note of the considerable height of the ceiling and the chandelier hanging from the main room. He noticed a chair which, if positioned beneath the chandelier, provided the appropriate drop if kicked away. And he noticed the stove conveniently powered by natural gas.
During his first week of inhabitance, Evan had laundered his clothes, including the pair of jeans containing the scribbled slip of paper Robert had passed to him on his arrival. He supposed Mrs. Shapiro had the missing information but he would wait to ask for it until he felt it was needed. Anyway, he would have to phone from her unit as they had previously discussed. He would wait because the information was not yet needed and because he found Mrs. Shapiro terrifying.
The flat was not lavish but well appointed and Evan settled in without much difficulty. Rising early he had coffee, juice and a buttered English muffin. He’d read or listen to music or both until lunch when he would dine at the inexpensive cafe nearby where a plate of pasta and a glass of wine could be had for not much more than the cost of the raw materials needed to prepare the meal himself. After lunch he would wander the roughly six block neighborhood. He began to embrace life in an eco-system that, as New Yorkers and Parisians know for example, exists as a series of small villages that make the larger city irrelevant and unnecessary. Indeed, as he had been told, he found everything he needed within a short distance and had become acquainted with a few of the locals although he had tight social boundaries as a result of his paucity of funds and his injured and wary spirit.
On his walk to the cafe, jay-walking across Rubicon Avenue which ran one-way and had few traffic lights allowing the vehicles to gain a considerable head of steam, he would note that a poorly timed step from the curb, whether by accident or design, would….
The flat, which seemed familiar from the first day, quickly became as much a friend to Evan as Robert. Like any true friendship, the flat and he seemed to enjoy one another’s company without the need for mutual acknowledgements and reassurances. Of particular enjoyment was the library. Four walls of floor to ceiling bookshelves that could not hold the entirety of the collection. When Evan wasn’t repositioning and climbing the ladder to examine the upper reaches he was digging through the boxes that obliterated fully half of the floor space. The library allowed for the sparsest of furnishings. A writing table with a single chair. Evan had to clear the books stacked on the table to restore its intended purpose. A worn leather sofa accompanied by a floor lamp. The sofa was, in many ways more inviting than the bed which he found a bit too firm. He spent many nights on the sofa, the slope of the arms provided precisely the correct position for prone reading whereas the four poster required a stacking of pillows that refused to remain in position.
He was on the sofa, lounging in his boxer shorts, the coverlet pulled to his collarbone with the floor lamp positioned perfectly, when he heard the key in the door. He was reading James Purdy’s Malcolm.
Evan didn’t panic, didn’t scramble for his trousers. Rather he lay quietly, book in hand, considering the possibilities. Could Robert have returned without advanced notice? An unfortunate event, it would be, since it might spell the end of Evan’s tenure in the flat. Or could it, God forbid, be Mrs. Shapiro?
It was neither. She entered carrying a small overnight bag like the one Grace Kelly used in Rear Window.
“Hello,” she said without the faintest hint of being startled. Evan retuned her greeting, standing before her in his boxers.
Her name was Alice. She was a friend of Robert’s, a former lover who had retained a key. She knew of Robert’s extended absence and had decided to take advantage of the opportunity without knowledge of the arrangement with Evan. She did not apologize or offer to leave.
Evan, considered Robert somewhat effeminate but had never questioned his sexuality, had never delved into the nature of his longstanding relationship with the man but wondered now whether the rights of a former lover might trump the rights of a mere friend no matter the duration of their friendship. He refused to consider the advantages that the practice of homosexuality would have conferred on him in advance of this dilemma.
Alice spent considerable time in the bathroom, looking relieved and refreshed when she emerged. Evan said, “So. You mean to spend the night.” Alice merely nodded.
Evan settled back onto the sofa thinking there was nothing more to say at such a late hour, assuming Alice could find her way to the bed of which she was, presumably, all too familiar.
In the morning, after another lengthy session in the bathroom, Alice padded about barefoot with wet hair. Evan offered Alice a buttered English muffin. She helped herself to juice and coffee. They talked about Robert. Alice confessed that their relationship had been sexual but not really intimate, a condition that Evan could understand. They had been close enough to result in her key which she had copied without his knowledge. Evan found Alice’s candor surprising and oddly reassuring. He knew he should visit Mrs. Shapiro for Robert’s number. He should phone him to inform him of the turn of events and ask Robert to vouchsafe for his guest but he was not entirely displeased by the company and there was, of course, the issue of interaction with Mrs. Shapiro. His only request of Alice, at the appropriate moment, would be that she provide her own English muffins.
During his turns in the bathroom, Evan noticed, since he had walked away from his former home without a shaving kit, that Robert used an electric shaver, hypocritically contradicting his views on technology. A straight razor would have delivered a better shave with other potential uses thrown into the bargain, Evan thought.
Evan had begun to wonder, in the final days of his first month of residence in the flat, about the lack of communication from Robert. Most likely he was busy with his work but his lack of curiosity regarding goings-on in his home was curious, at best.
During a frank discussion with Alice, as they shared a cheap bottle of Chianti, Evan offered details about his distressed circumstances having already heard about Alice’s own travails. He told her about his weakness for beautiful women with character flaws or a lack of intelligence which he didn’t suppose was all that uncommon but the insight made it no easier to break ingrained habits. He and Alice formed a pact under the old theory that two can live as cheaply as one, agreeing to pool whatever resources they had or might gain in the future. This was an arrangement considerably superior to the one he had recently left in his marriage.
Alice was at a considerable advantage since women, in contrast to men, especially if the woman is, like Alice, young and attractive even though, in the case of Alice, not particularly stunning. Women can always can rely on the generosity of men especially if they grant them certain benefits. Evan would not assume Alice’s modus operandi, nor ask of such matters or consider it any of his business so long as it didn’t affect him.
It wasn’t long before Alice began arriving at the flat late in the evening, tipsy, with “friends”. The friends were male or female or both or of ambiguous gender. The gathering would disrupt Evan’s reading or music but offered the booze and food they invariably brought with them. Evan got accustomed to these soirees and since they were mostly on Friday or Saturday evening he could plan for and even gratefully anticipate the events.
One Friday afternoon, Alice informed Evan that she wouldn’t be returning to the flat until the following morning having been invited to a party that would run into the wee hours. Evan was disappointed but took the opportunity to get his first sleep in the bed for quite some time.
Stumbling through the door and through the series of rooms, for the flat was without proper hallways, Alice tumbled, stinking of booze and cigarettes, into the bed alongside Evan. He was unsure if she was aware of his presence but she draped a thin arm around his waist and snuggled into his back. He was unsure what this meant, if anything, given her condition.
In the morning, Evan quit the bed before Alice had awakened and sat at the breakfast table with coffee, contemplating the night before. He had never considered, let alone attempted, a romantic advance on Alice but the smell of her, corrupted though it was by a layer of party residue, had inspired desires that had been extinguished by his recent humiliations. He thought about Alice’s warmth on his backside and how it had left a sort of glow. When she arose she smiled in a different way than the day before and, for the first time, pecked his cheek with a kiss before eating her muffin voraciously which suggested the lack of a proper meal the evening before. She relayed her tale of the party where she had intended to sleep off her drink until the host made it clear that the fare was sharing his bed, driving her back to where she now believed she belonged.
On the next next night, as Evan rested comfortably on the sofa with a copy of The Master and Margarita, Alice came to him from the bathroom, stark naked and cool and damp to the touch. She extended her hand and led him to bed.
After months still with no word from Robert while deftly dodging Mrs. Shapiro, Evan felt that in some occurrence his stay in the flat would soon surely come to an end.
On a late afternoon Evan returned to the flat with two bottles of wine and a hunk of cheese, an extravagance intended to please Alice. She wasn’t there. Neither was her overnight bag, her purse or other personal belongings. There was no trace of the woman. In the middle of the night he opened and drank both bottles of wine and ate enough of the cheese for both of them.
For the next several days, Evan visited their regular haunts – the cafe, a bar called The Rook, and even Washington Park though the pleasant gazebo and benches where they had sat and read or talked were seasonally cold and unpopulated except by bums which he imagined he was coming to resemble. Alice was nowhere to be found. He took to asking the regulars about her and when they said they had no recollection or hadn’t seen the woman he described in affectionate details he became increasingly despondent. After a while he settled into a hermit like existence, staring at the door, waiting for the turn of a key. He began to wonder if Alice had ever existed at all.
In desperation, Evan consulted Mrs. Shapiro to ask for Robert’s number in hopes that he might be able to shed light on Alice and her disappearance. She stared at him curiously. Mrs. Shapiro had no number.
Mrs. Shapiro had smelled the seeping gas, entered the flat with her master key, turned off the stove and bent over the man, breathing into him a foulness of corned beef, sauerkraut and rotting teeth. Evan’s mouth hungrily engaged hers thinking the woman of his dreams had returned.
What impresses him most is the softness of her hair. He knows it is soft even though he has never touched it and, likely, never will.
He can see that it is soft.
He understands the flexibility and mutability of the senses. The way some people can, purportedly, hear or smell the color yellow, for example.
The young woman with the soft hair laughs at something her friend has said. He wishes he could touch her laughter. Hold her laughter in his hands and fondle it. Put her laughter in his mouth and taste it. Chewable laughter. Swallowable laughter. Digestible laughter. Would poop laughter be reduced to a series of giggles?
On this sunny but raw December morning he could smell the cold the moment he opened his door.
He does not doubt that there are kind monsters, who love despite their innate nature, and evil saints whose generosity and good deeds serve primarily their own purposes.
The world is not as we believe, as we have been told and taught by parents and teachers wielding false authority. There is more space than substance. Time, despite signs of aging and degradation, is an illusion. Whatever time is, it travels in many directions and at different speeds. This is something he has learned to believe, from experience.
His thoughts fell heavy on the sidewalk, to be trod upon or kicked aside by those who will follow, as he walked the short block for his breakfast with coffee where he found the young woman with hair that smells and sounds soft.
The things that we think will keep us alive will kill us and voice versa. The cheeseburger. The alcohol. Sex. Adventure. Curiosity. Love. Security. Flip them, turn them over, roll them around. Front is back. Top is bottom. To embrace or deny our deepest desires has exactly the same end result but with different milestones along the way.
She. The other one whose hair is also soft is still asleep in the bed and does not know of or may not agree with any of these notions. He would have liked to crawl into her dreams during the night were the hatch not battened. Maybe he was already there. A greater or lesser version of himself that he might never encounter or find suitable if he did.
She sleeps and cannot hear the soft voices of the eggs and bacon sitting before him. Perhaps she has already risen and found his note which contains both an offer and an apology. She may be thinking of the night before and the night before that and on and on to the beginning depending on her memory and imagination and her ability not to conflate the two.
Each decision establishes the next one and erases possible others. He could finish his breakfast, walk out the door, head down the street in the opposite directions never to return to this place or to her but the sheer weight of previous decisions makes that almost impossible.
The young woman in the cafe with the howling soft hair is aware. He knows she is aware even before she brushes a soft lock from her forehead, from her soft, brown eyes. She talks and looks at her friend but he knows she is watching. When he sips his coffee, she sips hers. An unconscious mimic. She may or may not be interested in him but he knows she is aware and curious. She tries to read the title of the book he had set aside when his meal arrived.
The door opens. She enters. Sleep remains in her eyes. She always looks and smells and sounds and feels and tastes soft when she has first awakened. She smiles and takes a seat beside him, turns to him and kisses him on the cheek. She takes a piece of his bacon off the plate and puts it in her mouth.
He smiles and sips his coffee.