Testimony of the Ostrich
Christ! Time to disappear, I'd say. What the hell happened? I thought your victims don't remember 'cuz you hypnotize them or something.
Let me explain. Normally, they do not remember, but sometimes recall is possible. For instance, there was aLondon prostitute whom I had dined upon about a hundred years ago who had a sudden attack of recall. This breakthrough occurred when she spied me riding in an open-air carriage one warm evening after I had spent an enjoyable outing at the symphony with a pair of acquaintances. When the carriage had passed the corner where she attempted to peddle her wares, she saw me, and immediately her face went through several rapid contortions of puzzlement, fear, more confusion, then finally recognition. The woman ran in front of the carriage, forcing the driver to come to a sudden stop.
"Guvnor!" she screeched. "Show yourself! I know you're in there. You can't hide."
We simply ignored her for the moment. My acquaintances, Igor Petrenko and Claude LeBlanc, both antique dealers with whom I had done much business, looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders, then looked at me and smiled knowingly.
"Count Farkus," Petrenko said, "I had no idea. Consorting with a woman of this type. I never would have expected this from you."
LeBlanc laughed. "Our dear Count has always been full of surprises. You know this woman?"
I made a show of flashing a relaxed smile. "It would seem, if I do not, I shall soon."
The prostitute moved to the side of the carriage, studied us, then pointed accusingly at me. "You! You're the one." She turned to my associates. "This one's a pervert, he is. He bit me on the neck. Left teethmarks. They stayed around for a week."
A whip cracked in the night. The woman squealed. As the carriage lurched forward, I tossed a few coins at her feet. I never saw this prostitute again and quite frankly, never worried. Even though the amnesiatic effect of my "attack" had apparently worn off, which can happen, though only rarely, it was obvious that she simply was unable to comprehend what had happened to her.
Therefore, there seemed little need to pay much heed to Frank's reaction. If he had remembered what had happened, he certainly would not believe that he had encountered a "mythical" creature such as myself. More likely, Frank would attribute the memory to overconsumption of alcohol or some of those hallucinatory drugs these young people seem so compelled to ingest these days.
Not that this situation could not present hazards, but considering that this secular society finds such notions the height of absurdity, it seemed hiding in plain sight was still the best option. Surely, this fellow would simply not believe he had been attacked by a vampire. Perhaps, he would think me a homosexual who, as the Americans would say, had made a pass at him.
Once again the folly of vanity, you say? Perhaps, you just might be correct on that point.
Be that as it may, for the time being, I would wait and see if the situation developed further. My greatest concern at that time was making money, and again, my destiny was on the road.
It was on the road, as a matter of fact, where I had experienced my own rush of memory regarding the prostitute, even though I had not thought about her for quite some time. It was a passenger who aided this process, pointing out the tart's contemporary counterparts, peddling their wares just a few blocks east of the Capitol in a rather sleepy residential area just up the street from the Madison Gas and Electric coal-burning plant.
"Look at that," he said, pointing at a pair of women standing on the corner, smoking cigarettes and pulling their long coats close to them to guard against the mid-March cold. "Christ, people pay them? They'd have to pay me."
Indeed. It did seem obvious that these women would have little appeal to all but the most desperate mortals. Even in the darkness, the unsavory nature of these women's personas was easily apparent. One woman was a Negro, and emaciated to the point of cadaverous. The other was blonde and plump, her flesh puffy and sallow. Unsavory indeed, but not necessarily without their utility. But I jump ahead of myself.
Though Kern had told me March was quite a busy month due to continuing inclement weather and because every weekend featured some high school athletic tournament, on a particular Tuesday, it seemed most of my shift was spent idle in cab stands. Tacitus accompanied me through this tedium though it seemed only a matter of time before the paperback would find itself torn asunder. Having completedThe Twelve Caesars , it seemed time to rereadAnnals of Imperial Rome, though sadly, Tacitus, with his highly bureaucratic approach, simply could not provide the entertainment of the more personal histories of Seutonius.
Another cab parked in front of me at the Concourse Hotel taxi stand. The driver emerged and walked toward my vehicle. Praise to those who might deliver me from my boredom. It was Kern, whose presence, much to my surprise, had seemed to become less intolerable.
"Hey, Count," Kern said, as he climbed inside and stretched his long legs across the back seat of my cab.
"Good eeevening," I replied in my best "count" voice, drawing a hearty laugh from Kern. "I am grateful of your presence. This is quite a slow night."
"Tell me about it. And the airport really bit the big one tonight." He exhaled loudly. "And nobody's been murdered lately, so people ain't scared to walk anymore."
My hand reached for the book sitting atop the dashboard, fingers twitching, ready to rip and tear. I pulled my arm back. "I imagine there is an inverse relationship between warm temperatures and our level of business. May I presume that business is appreciably slower during the summer?"
"Yeah, but that don't necessarily mean you'll be making much less money. There's fewer calls, but there's fewer cabs, so it evens out. There's lots of out-of-towners coming in for classes and conferences. A whole month, there's the big graduate school for bankers. That's a thousand bankers per two-week session, all coming here to party. Unfortunately, they don't party like they used to."
Dexter's crackling voice broke the radio silence. "Count, where are you?"
I lifted the microphone from its cradle. "Concourse."
"Count, you have a personal at the Six-oh-two Club for Nicole. She works here."
"Ten-four." Indeed, but why ask for me?
"You dog!" Kern said, mock anger and real envy in his voice.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Hey, man, surface. Don't be drowning in the bottom of the pool." Kern shook his head back and forth slowly. "She's the prettiest woman in the fleet. And straight too. Not many of those floating around."
"Ah, well," I replied, "it would seem that if you have got it, you have got it."
"Sure, Count. Whatever you say. Must be thatOld World charm thing." Kern winked then slid from the cab.
Nicole, having been watching from the large picture window at the front of the bar, emerged just as I pulled up. She sat in the front seat, her scent most apparent, the beat of her heart loud and strong.
"Hi, Al. Glad they were able to send you." Her voice was relaxed though her words were ever so slightly slurred.
"Thank you for requesting me. It has been a terribly boring night thus far. Where may I take you?"
"Home." She sounded tired. "Three-twenty-one North Hamilton. Right at Ham and Gorham. Sorry it's such a short fare."
"Ah, but all calls are good calls, and you, as a fellow driver, will surely tip me well."
"Depends on how well you service me."
I let her last remark pass. Hopefully, she was being facetious. The image of Kern and the old woman who had asked him if he wanted to earn an extra dollar came to mind. "So, you live right by James Madison Park? It must be nice to live in such proximity of such a nice beach."
Nicole laughed. "Haven't lived here too long, have you Al? The lakes are awful for swimming, all choked with weeds and algae. And at night, there's too many bums. Besides, I'm not a beach person. I like the night, just like you do."
"The night does have a beauty all its own," I replied.
"It does." She reached for the book on my dashboard. "Tacitus? Didn't know you were into Roman history."
I nodded. "Certainly. I greatly appreciate the parallels betweenRome and theUnited States . And the Romans themselves are just so fascinating."
"Sure, but you'd never know reading Tacitus." She tossed the book carelessly onto the dashboard. "He's accurate, and he grounds his histories well in terms of who was counsel, who were tribunes at what particular time. I had to read him for a class. God, talk about dry."
A growl escaped my throat. "Indeed. If Tacitus were not already dead, I think I might be tempted to kill him."
Nicole laughed lightly like the wind. "Youdo have such a unique way of putting things. I've got this book that might interest you. It's a five-hundred-year-old edition of Seutonius'sThe Twelve Caesars . It's a beautiful, leather-bound volume. In Latin."
"I am impressed."
"Well, you should be." Saucy laughter escaped her lips. "My father gave it to me. He was a classics professor. I'd love to show it to you sometime."
"I would like that," I said, immediately sorry that I had.
After a short ride, we arrived at her house, a white Georgian mansion surely chopped into several flats. Nicole reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a charge slip. I handed her my clipboard and pen and turned on the interior light. As she filled out the charge slip, her scent wafted into my nostrils, a chorus of beer, vodka, sweat and cigarette smoke, not so much competing, but somehow combining to form a whole that was more appetizing than one would normally think, for above it all rose the aroma of her flesh, which was faintly sweet, while not at all acrid. I took a deep breath and closed my ears to the pounding of her heart.
As she handed me the clipboard, her fingers lightly brushed the back of my hand, causing the hairs to stand on end. She faced me, eyes wide and so very, very brown.
"You know, Al...." Her voice trailed off. Her heart began to beat faster. "I'd love to show you my father's book. How 'bout you come over this weekend if you're not doing anything. I'm a pretty good cook. I'll cook you dinner, and you can look at my father's book."
Motherless spawn of Satan! This American woman had just asked me out on a date. And to think that Henry James's Daisy Miller was considered forward!
"Nicole," I began. "I must say I am very flattered by your attention. Very flattered indeed. But I just cannot reciprocate." Indeed, my purpose was to make money and not get distracted by the first attractive woman who showed an interest in me. Besides, the mere sight of her caused a flood of unwanted images - of Anya, her lifeless eyes staring upward, her exquisite body mutilated.
"Ohmygod, you're gay! Maggie told me you were. She said you make her gaydar go off like crazy, but I didn't believe her."
This provoked laughter on my part. Obviously, her best friend, housemate and fellow Co-op cabbie could not have been more incorrect, in fact, could not even venture to provide any reasonable speculation about my sexual orientation. It did occur to me to play along with this charade, but that might provoke attention from those of the male gender, and I would again find myself in this situation.
"No, I can assure you that I most definitely am not a homosexual."
"You're just not interested. I'm just being a pest." Her pained voice trailed off. She turned away from me and reached for the door handle.
It could have been quite easy and infinitely prudent to let her think anything she wanted, but the pain in her voice was obvious, and it touched me. These mortals do find rejection hurtful, most likely because they have so little time with which to find a mate.
"You remind me of someone," I said finally, wanting to ease her pain and realizing that, in fact, she did interest me perhaps just a little.
She touched my arm. "Some bitch who dumped you? Hell, I'm sorry."
I shook my head. "No. She's dead. Not to go into too much detail, but she died saving my life."
Nicole pulled her arm away and pressed both hands to her chest. "Fuck! Shit, I'm such an idiot. I'm really, really sorry."
"Nicole, it is not your fault. You had no way of knowing. Please, do not feel badly."
"Well, I guess I better let you get back to work, huh? Look, you wanna talk about it, I'm a pretty good listener. You know where to find me." Without another word, she was gone, but the sweet scent of her flesh lingered in the cab for what seemed like a long time, mocking me, paralyzing me.
I remained parked outside Nicole's residence for a few minutes before finally departing, my lips shouting a curse in a long-dead language. No distractions! Dalliance was not my purpose.
Yet, I could feel something awakening inside the very core of my being, a very unique kind of hunger. And this lack of self-control on my part angered me. I had shut down that part of me. Surely, I could be able to choose the time when again that would no longer be denied to me.
Later that same shift, driving down East Main, I again saw the harlots, smoking their cigarettes, waiting for customers, and it did occur to me that they might indeed have a certain utility. Yes, utility was an appropriate term, for it seemed that they could be a tool for my use, albeit an extravagant tool, but a tool nonetheless for me to use to assuage my hunger in an impersonal way that would minimize my distractions and keep my hunger under control.
An hour after sunset, on a night free from my hopefully temporary indentured servitude, I parked my Toyota a few blocks away and used the locomotion of my own two feet to seek out these ladies. The Negress was nowhere in sight. The blonde stood on the same street corner, smoking a cigarette, the smoke intermingling with her own breath, visible with each exhale. At close scrutiny, her faux fur coat looked ratty and of little defense against the cold, which was probably fairly mild, unless one had to stand in it for hours at a time. I made a show of pulling my leather jacket close to my body, though even the most severe cold merely provides a slight stinging sensation, like beams of the sun when it is low on the horizon.
"Need to be warmed up, honey," she said in a hoarse, unalluring contralto as I approached. I turned and looked directly at her. Her face was covered with a hardshell foundation cover, but still looked very pale. Close scrutiny revealed dark roots in her blonde hair. Thick lines circumscribed several circles around her plump neck. She opened her coat enough to show ample cleavage.
"It is rather cold, is it not?" I replied.
"I know where we can go to get nice and warm."
She pointed toward a ramshackle house just around the corner.
"How much is this hospitality worth in this day and age of high inflation?" I asked.
She laughed lightly at my "foreign" manner, which suited me just fine. Let her think I was a foreign visitor, feeling just a bit lonely, just as long as she did not see fit to overcharge me.
"Fifty bucks," she replied, "but it'll be worth a lot more. You'll see."
"Excellent. Lead the way, my dear." As I followed, a vague sense of alarm poked dull daggers into my being, but I merely attributed it to the realization that this action was illegal, this being the puritanical American Midwest and not someplace more practical, likeAmsterdam orVienna .
Her flat was as shabby as the exterior would lead one to believe, and it reeked of more organic materials than I cared to consider. Still, my purpose was not to critique this woman's aesthetic proclivity toward interior design, and thus I phased out the sights and smells of this abode.
"Come with me," she said. The tart tossed her coat aside, took my hand and lead me into the bedroom. "God, we gotta warm up those cold hands." Her dress was bright red, strapless and extended just below her hips. Stockings covered trunk-like legs, supported teeteringly by black stiletto heels. As a gentleman, I wanted to massage her feet, but realized that she was not the one who was paying for services-to-be-rendered.
I lifted fifty dollars from my wallet, which she immediately snatched from my fingers. She reached inside my leather jacket and tried to unbutton my shirt. I twisted away and sat on the bed. "Take off your dress," I said. The lady let the dress fall to the floor and stood before me in red brassiere, black panties, stockings, garters and high heels.
"What would you like me to do for you?" she asked.
"Remove the rest of your clothing and come sit beside me." She complied, giving me a view of her ample flesh, which was the color of dead fish floating atop poisoned water, almost making me wish I had not ordered her to disrobe.
She joined me on the bed and again attempted to unbutton my shirt. I gently pushed her hand away.
"Whatdo you want me to do for you?" she asked again, her tone more insistent.
"I want you to pleasure yourself."
"You want me to whack myself off?"
I groaned inwardly. "Yes. I want you to pleasure yourself fully and completely."
"That is all I require, but I do meanfully and completely ."
She nodded then lay back on the bed, her hand lowered to the cleft between her legs. I moved close, reached a hand around her shoulders and stroked her stomach and pillow-like breasts with my other hand, feeling her skin, which was surprisingly soft and smooth.
Though her perfume was garish, the skin underneath smelled sweet, and her womanhood smelled strong. Beneath it all, her heart beat loudly and with increasing frequency as she worked harder and harder toward the ascribed goal. Her breathing grew deeper and more rapid, and she let forth the occasional moan and grunt.
"Please take your time, my dear," I said. "There is no need to rush."
The woman nodded, her breathing increasingly rapid and shallow.
I continued to stroke her back, but once she settled into a rapid rhythm of finger strokes and short, quick breaths, I stopped fondling her breasts and laid a hand on her stomach until she began to pant rapidly, before letting out a loud, guttural shriek.
Her body shook, and I gently tugged her chin toward me, met her gaze and touched her consciousness. Her expression went blank.
I plunged my fangs into her neck, their razor touch penetrating her soft flesh. Hot blood squirted down my throat.
The room faded from my sight, replaced by hard, static blankness, the blankness of one with no soul who had deceived quite the gullible consumer.
After licking the twin rivulets of blood dribbling down her throat, I departed, her bitter taste burning through my being. Far from being sated, I was hungrier than ever before and angry with myself, knowing that in an effort to control my hunger, I had only succeeded in opening Pandora's Box.
I quickly discovered that these cab drivers are quite the superstitious lot; though making money depends on a certain amount of luck, skill is paramount, yet so many of my fellow drivers, Kern included, seemed to hold in reverence supreme beings called the "Cab Gods." When running deep east to deep west, then getting a call nearby, going another long distance, the Cab Gods had smiled. In less fortunate times, as they say in their vulgar manner, they had been "fucked by the Cab Gods." And Eastern belief seemed to play a certain role, albeit in a childish sense of instant Karma; according to many, the Cab Gods' whims are somewhat related to the actions of the drivers.
But who was I to argue? Certainly, it was the Cab Gods who had smiled upon us again in late-March, providing an unexpected storm, dropping eight inches of that crystalline white-gold onMadison 's streets, as if the bounty of this winter had not been enough. The driving was difficult for two days, but by Saturday night, the streets were clear and dry, yet the snow remained, providing people with enough incentive to leave the task of driving to the professionals who do it best.
On Saturday, the Cab Gods provided me with quite the lucrative shift, thus creating the kind of distraction necessary to take my mind off Frank Nelson and my burgeoning hunger. I had pleased our patron deities by showing up two hours prior to the eight o'clock start time for my shift.
The Cab Gods rewarded my diligence immediately, seeing that my calls criss-crossed the far reaches of the city and always taking care that another excellent call would be available upon discharging my passengers.
Even when the string of calls had snapped, and I was downtown with not much to occupy my disturbed mind, the Cab Gods provided me with a fine flower that had been hidden in cow dung, seeing fit to send me a flag who desired to go all the way to East Towne Mall and back.
Still, despite my efforts, no amount of largesse from the Cab Gods could distract me, nor could the lovely staccato rhythm of rapidly spinning wheels striking the pavement as the cab sped to yet another call. The hunger was real and action was mandatory.
Despite my better judgment screaming in protest, I telephoned Nicole and invited her to come to dinner at my apartment - better the familiar surroundings of my own abode. Her voice sounded enthusiastic when she accepted. We set the appointment for Sunday, my next available, unfettered evening.
Though I do not eat, my culinary expertise is not totally lacking. In fact, there has been many an occasion where I did prepare quite the sumptuous repast for friends, but never beef or pork; the aroma of cooked mammal flesh has always made me nauseous. Chicken, however, is not a problem. Thus, I would prepare Chicken Paprika, a dish from my homeland of plump chicken breasts cooked slowly in tomato juice and vinegar with onions and a great deal of paprika. When the chicken is almost entirely cooked, sour cream is added, creating a thick, rich sauce. Certainly, Nicole would relish such a dish, though I never could; the paprika pepper was not introduced toHungary until long after my desire for food had ceased.
While the chicken simmered, I inspected the apartment. A crisp, white tablecloth covered the small, folding table. The apartment was uncluttered and dust free. My futon was folded against the wall, forming a makeshift couch. My books were neatly arranged on their respective shelves. My record-albums were neat and orderly, organized in alphabetical order and divided into classical and jazz.
Satisfied, I cued upThe Magic Flute , sat on the futon and paged throughThe Wall Street Journal , absorbing myself in an analysis of the burgeoningPacific Rim markets. Soon, my apartment was thick with the aroma of cooked chicken and paprika, and hazy, lace-covered images superimposed themselves over my sight. A home of rocks, grass and mud. Two simple herders living together, working side by side to scratch out a meager existence that seemed neither meager nor simple. Just a young man and a young woman satisfied with their lot, satisfied with each other. Dinner would merely be a simple stew, with meat if available, served on earthen plates fired from clay dug from behind the house. The young man dug up more clay whenever plates broke, forming shapeless lumps into smooth flatware. The young woman lovingly filled the plates with stew created from whatever sustenance was available.
Visions of that life are fleeting, as easy to hold as quicksilver. So long ago, the memory is intact, but shrouded, coming clear only every so often as flashes, as snapshots, before fading, known, but not seen, except for that one image always available, ever haunting me.
Burning flesh washed away the lace curtains of recollection. The chicken was burning. I put away the newspaper and inspected the chicken. One side was slightly charred and required turning. Otherwise, the chicken was fine, cooked through and through, swimming in an ample amount of sauce. I lowered the flame slightly, then set a high flame under a saucepan full of water. Nicole was due shortly, so it was time to start boiling water for the noodles. A smaller saucepan held broccoli within a steel steamer suspended over water.
I opened a bottle ofBordeaux to allow enough time for this full-bodied red to breath. And yes, red wine with chicken was a bit unorthodox, but a faint-hearted white would find itself overpowered by the paprika; theBordeaux would blend nicely with the spice and tomato sauce.
And yes, I did not actually have any pots, pans, dishes or silverware, but stocking my kitchen was easily accomplished with a quick excursion to the St. Vincent DePaul second-hand store.
I splashed some wine over the chicken, then returned to my newspaper to await Nicole's arrival, which would signal time to commence steaming the broccoli and adding sour cream to the chicken.
Shortly, there was a knock on the door. According to the clock on the nightstand next to my futon, Nicole was exactly thirteen minutes late. When I opened the door, she stood before me, a vision of loveliness, holding a single red rose, garnished with a few sprigs of baby's breath.
"I couldn't come empty-handed," she said, handing me the flower. "Usually, I'd bring a bottle of wine, but you said you'd already taken care of that."
She looked lovely, dressed in jeans and a simple cotton peasant-blouse that showed off her curves nicely. Her long, black hair was pulled away from her face on one side, held in place by a barrette that also held a small sprig of baby's breath. "Yes, if I were to tell you what kind of wine to bring, that would spoil the surprise I have cooked up for you. Please, come in."
"Thanks," she said, crossing the threshold and closing the door behind her. She glanced quickly at her surroundings. "I see you like the light and airy look."
Drawn shades covered the few small windows in the basement apartment, hiding the black Mylar sheets underneath. And the faux walnut paneling did little to make the apartment appear any less dark than it already was. Perhaps candles would have made my abode appear less grim, but I did not want to come on too strong. This was just dinner, just a friendly, innocent dinner.
"Well, as a creature of the night, I am not a big fan of the 'light and airy look.'"
"I can tell." She laughed. "Me neither. I've always hated getting up before noon." A creature of the night indeed. Though her flesh was slightly swarthy, it was easily apparent that her pallor was hardly as dark as it could be.
"Please, have a seat." I pointed at the table as I strode toward the kitchen. "Preparation of the meal is almost complete. Would you care for a glass of wine?" She nodded, and I poured a glass of wine then searched for something within which her floral offering might be housed. No vases available, I hastily emptied a bottle of mineral water, filled it with water from the tap, then dropped the rose inside.
"Thanks." Nicole said upon my return, accepting the glass of wine and admiring the new centerpiece on the table. "Now, that's an improvement. Lovely table, but it just needed something extra." She flared her lovely, elliptical nostrils as I took a seat opposite her. "Something sure smells good. What'd you make?"
"It is a surprise. You shall find out soon enough. I hope it will be to your liking."
Nicole swirled the wine in her glass, sniffed the bouquet then took a sip. She smiled broadly. "Very nice.Bordeaux , right?"
"Why, yes." I felt myself smile. Could this American actually possess some Continental culture?
Nicole took another sip and sighed, a big smile on her face. She slouched back in her chair. "My parents were big wine drinkers. I loveBordeaux ." She flared her nostrils once more. "Doesn't smell like beef. Chicken? Chicken in some sort of red sauce? It'd have to be. I couldn't imagine you serving a full-bodied red with chicken unless the sauce called for it."
"You are most perceptive." I smiled, knowing full well that though she was able to deduce the form of the dish, she could not determine its essence, and the surprise would still be intact.
She swirled the ruby contents of her glass, then put the vessel on the table. "Hope it'll be ready soon. I'm starved."
"Very soon. I did not wish to thrust the food at you as soon as you arrived."
"That's real nice of you, Al. Say, why don't you pour yourself a glass. I've got something I want to show you." She reached into her valise of a purse and removed a parcel concealed within a brown paper grocery sack.
"I do not drink, but please feel free to enjoy."
She nodded silently, then removed an engraved steel box from the paper sack. She unfastened a clasp on the box, removed a thick, leather-bound tome and laid it on the table. "Then, drink this."
"Your father's book!" My eyes felt as if they were bulging out of their sockets. I am not easily impressed, but obviously this volume was quite the unusual item and quite valuable; it most likely was about half my age.
"I knew you would enjoy seeing it. By the way, have you thrown away Tacitus yet?"
My hand reached for the book and stroked the soft, worn leather cover. "No, he still torments me. May I inspect your book?" She nodded, and I lifted the book from the table, handling this priceless volume with great care. The cover opened with a most pleasant crackling-creak. The post-Guttenberg lettering was still lovely, hand-set Latin, full of flower and flourish. The inside cover bore the set-type number of this limited edition ofThe Twelve Caesars .
"You do read Latin, don't you?" Nicole asked.
"Yes, I do." Something odd stirred inside me. To my ears, my voice sounded very far away. This gesture of bringing me this museum piece was quite touching, but there was something else, a vague recollection. Inspecting the front and back inside covers revealed no signatures denoting previous ownership. Turning to the first chapter, about the life and death of Julius Caesar, I found that the drop-cap gamma at the beginning of the chapter was upside down. I smiled, knowing this was a very rare book indeed; the mistake was corrected after the first print run. And surely you know why I might know this; this same edition, perhaps this same volume, was once mine.
"What is it?" Nicole seemed to notice my reaction.
"I am familiar with this edition." I pointed out the mistake, but stopped just short of full disclosure. I closed the book and replaced it within its box. Dinner was probably ready to be served.
While stirring the chicken, draining the noodles and broccoli and arranging the food decoratively on a plate for my guest, I thought of the book, relishing the opportunity to page through it; though bawdy, the Graves translation is relatively sanitized compared with the original, hair-raising Latin version.
"Very pretty!" Nicole exclaimed at the plate placed before her. She refilled her glass and spread the cloth napkin on her lap, then her eyes darted back and forth across the table. "Where's your plate?" she asked finally.
A small detail. A small contingency that somehow had taken me by surprise, even though this is the inevitable question I always find myself having to answer.
"I may eat later," I answered, somewhat stretching the truth. "I have this condition. Though I relish food, I find it difficult to dine at the same time as others. Watching others eat while I try to eat can make me a bit queasy."
Nicole had just lifted a forkful of noodles soaked in sauce. Her wrist suddenly relaxed, and the noodles slid off her fork, back on to her plate. "That's pretty weird, Al. Doesn't it bother you to watch me eat?"
I smiled nobly. "Not at all. Believe me, watching you enjoy this meal gives me as much pleasure as if I ate it myself. More, even."
Satisfied, she cut into the chicken and lifted a sauce-dripping piece to her mouth. She chewed and closed her eyes in obvious pleasure. "Delicious." She washed down the first bite with a sip of wine. "Wonderful, Al. But it's too bad. There's so many nice restaurants here in town. Must make eating out impossible."
"It does, but there is always take-out, I suppose. I have, however, on occasion, taken a meal in the dark corner of a quiet restaurant."
"Well, there's a few places like that, once-trendy bistros that people forgot about because the next trendy place opened up." She cut a piece of broccoli and swirled it in the sauce. "Thisis wonderful. What is it?"
"Chicken paprika, a recipe from my homeland."
"Ah, I knew you were Hungarian. Either that or Finnish." She enjoyed another bite. "I love paprika. And this paprika is real fresh."
She enthusiastically devoured the contents of her plate while I kept her wine glass full. Nicole took her time, clearly savoring each bite, her movements surprisingly graceful considering the vulgarity of the act - vulgar from my perspective, that is.
When she had cleared her plate, I realized my great faux pas. There was no dessert! As I began to chastise myself for such a foolish oversight, my guest simply said that she usually does not care for dessert. Relieved, I cleared the table and quickly washed the dishes.
Nicole was sitting on the futon when I emerged from the kitchen, Art Pepper playing softly on the stereo, obviously carefully selected from my jazz section. Her taste impressed me.
"Thanks for dinner," Nicole said when I had joined her on the futon. She patted, then stroked my forearm softly. "It was delicious."
"Your company honors me greatly. A splendid repast is the least I can do." I pointed at the steel box. "Tell me about your father."
Nicole took a sip of wine and held the shimmering glass in front of her eyes. "My father," she began. "Like I said, he was a classics professor here at the UW. He died when I was in my early teens." Her voice trailed off.
"At least you got to know him."
"Yeah," her voice bore a slight tinge of bitterness. "People always tell me that, that I was lucky he was alive long enough for me to get to know him, for me to be able to remember him, but a lot of times I almost wish I didn't get to know him. If he died when I was just a little girl, then I wouldn't know what I was missing, not having a father. That must sound terrible."
I patted her hand gently. "No, not necessarily. You may feel that way sometimes, sometimes not. It is quite natural."
"Yeah. Besides, my memories are mostly of him sitting in his study, reading Latin or Greek from some musty old book.Rome was his specialty, but I think he really hated the Romans. He was always talking about how stupid they were, how derivative their culture was. How no Roman ever had an original thought in their entire history."
"Why dedicate his whole life to the study of a people he did not care for?"
"Good question." She downed the remaining contents of her glass and reached for the bottle, her soft breasts brushing against my thigh. "To tell the truth, I thinkRome killed him."
"An interesting hypothesis." I watched her place the bottle on the floor between her feet.
"I think he felt trapped, felt very unsatisfied. There he was, a tenured professor, with a nice house, a very nice wife and such a sweet little girl, but none of that made him happy. He didn't really have any other interests outside his work, and he didn't really like his work."
"But it sounds like he found antiquity quite fascinating, even if he did not care for the subjects of his study."
"My Mom told me Dad would've liked to have done his research onGreece , notRome , but where he got his doctorate it was eitherRome or nothing. And it was the only grad school he could get intoand get funding, so he didn't have any choice."
"As a professor, he should have been able to do any research he wanted."
"True, but I think Dad chose to wallow in the trap. Maybe he'd been feeling sorry for himself for so long, he didn't know any other way."
I studied the fine lines of her jaw, the aquiline nose, her high, scalloped cheek bones. So much like Anya, but different, so totally different once I was able to get to know her as her own person and not the ghost of another. "You seem to possess tremendous insight."
"You think so?"
She again touched my forearm. Her hand lingered, stroking the thick, black hair on my arms, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. In a deep, distant place, there was a tingle.
"May I ask you something else?" I said quietly.
"Sure." She folded her legs in front of her and turned her body toward me. "Ask me anything."
"As I have stated previously, I am most flattered by your attention, but I am puzzled that you would be interested in me when there are so many younger men available. I look around, and there are so many strapping young lads. Why am I the one who arouses your interest?"
Nicole laughed heartily. "Al, you're not that old. Mid-thirties, maybe late-thirties. I don't think you're old at all."
I smiled broadly. "You might be surprised if you truly knew my age."
She scrutinized me closely and completely. "Well, if you'rethat old, you're pretty well preserved."
"Ah ha!" I laughed. "Yes, well preserved. That is it."
Nicole touched my hair with the palm of her hand. "Very well preserved. You're hair feels so soft. I'd say silken, but - it's more like it's smooth, like a marble statue."
I reached up and touched the hand stroking my hair. Our fingers intertwined, then dropped slowly to the space between us on the futon, lingering together until I gently pulled my hand away.
"I do not seem that old to you?"
"Well, first of all, you're not so old that you're not good looking. You remind me of some of those very pale,very handsome British actors, like a young Lawrence Oliver, with even more charm."
Kern's "Old Worldcharm," but it was just supposed to work for tips. He had never said it would work elsewhere.
"Youare older, Al, no question about that, but that means you're just mature, a lot more mature than theseboys . I'm not really interested in them. I mean, a few years makes a big difference."
"You have had experience with less mature people?"
"Damn right, and I'm tired of it." Her head bowed for a moment, then rose. "You seem like a gentle, kind person. You're intelligent and easy to talk to. You seem to understand things, and you're funny, too. Plus, you're a good cook, a neat housekeeper and you don't have any roommates. What else would a girl want?"
Funny? That is not an adjective I have often heard another person use to describe me. Perhaps, as the Americans say, funny strange, as opposed to funny ha ha.
Nicole slapped me on the thigh. "Well, I showed you mine, now show me yours."
"I beg your pardon."
"This woman you said I remind you of. What was her name?"
Quid pro quo. Itwould have been unreasonable to get something for nothing. Nicole's parents were children when Anya was murdered, yet for one such as myself, it was merely yesterday. Scarcely a night passes when I do not feel the phantom sensation of her hand touching mine.
"Her name was Anya."
"Did you love her?"
I nodded silently.
"She meant a lot to you, didn't she?"
"Yes, she did." I stared at the wood-paneled wall across the room, the grain fading and dissolving from the here and now before Nicole's voice pulled me back.
"How'd you guys meet?"
My voice sounded wistful. "I was inPrague , conducting business."
"Nice city. Been there a couple times."
"You are fortunate. One night, I was attending a play by Anton Chekov. During an intermission, a friend introduced us. I think that from the first time we looked upon each other, we knew we were destined to be close. It was not so much that we were kindred spirits. Oddly, our meeting was a strange coincidence. We knew not of each other, yet I was actually quite close to her family. She was a gypsy, and my family had had close relationships with gypsies many times over the years."
"I'm part gypsy," Nicole interjected.
"Yes, I can see it in your eyes, black like the soft, velvety night."
Nicole cooed softly, then laughed, beckoning me to continue.
"It was summer, and we went on outings together. I had to do a bit of traveling, and she accompanied me. It was not long before a bond formed between the two of us."
"It must have been very special."
"It was. So much of my life has been spent alone, and when someone emerges that I can enjoy such a bond with, it is quite exquisite."
"So what happened to her?"
I paused, the here and now dissolving before my very eyes, but Nicole pulled me back again, lightly touching my shoulder, her fingers ever so softly stroking the fabric of my shirt.
"She died protecting me," I began gingerly. Nicole nodded, prodding me to reveal more, to reveal all. "We were hiding from soldiers. Actually, I was hiding, and she was keeping watch until it was time for our train to leave to take us safely out ofPrague . She could have fled to save herself, but she did not. Anya stayed with me, even when the storm troopers broke the door down. From where I was concealed, I could hear them beat her, rape her. Then, there was silence, and I was powerless to do anything to help her."
"My God," Nicole gasped, clamping a hand on my wrist. "God, how horrible. You must feel terrible. No wonder you were a bit freaked out. How can somebody ever recover from something like that?"
"Time heals." Indeed, time does heal, though some humans do not live sufficiently long enough for that to happen. Still, at least they do not get haunted by memories for the next several centuries.
Nicole shook her head, her raven tresses falling forward, covering her face. She lifted her head and crossed her legs. "Wait a second. Storm troopers? InCzechoslovakia ? I thought they didn't really have much of a standing army."
"You are correct." I paused for a moment, gathering my gumption. "They were not Czech. The soldiers were German."
"Ah, East German soldiers. But what were they doing inCzechoslovakia ? Oh, must've been 1968. There must've been East German soldiers along with the Soviets when the Prague Spring was brought to its knees. I think I remember reading that the Soviets went in there with Warsaw Pact troops. Jeez, you were there? Wow. But, Al, even as terrible as that was, that's a pretty long time to be carrying that kind of baggage." She reached over and stroked my cheek. "You gotta let go of the past sometime."
Indeed, but while short-lived mortals have the luxury of letting go of their past, eternity gives me the opportunity to wallow in it. "It was a little longer ago than ninteen sixty-eight," I said, after pausing a bit, summoning the courage for full disclosure. Yes, full disclosure! Speak quickly before common sense can stop that reckless tongue! "Those Germans were not of the Warsaw Pact. They were Nazis."
Nicole's back straightened abruptly. "Nazis! Come on. You can't be serious. You can't be that old. No way. You're pulling my leg."
"I can assure you, this is no jest. Theywere Nazis."
She slid away from me, her back rigid, but her voice still soft. "Why are you doing this? I don't understand. Are you having an approach-avoidance problem? I mean, it's probably my fault. I've been practically throwing myself at you when you're obviously not in the kind of space where you can get close to somebody."
"But I am ready. You are correct. It is time for me to let go of the past."
"Then, why push me away when I get close? Why are you making up stories?"
"I am not - " I stopped myself, deciding to try a different tact. "Youdo have gypsy blood coursing through your veins? How much?"
Nicole's expression turned from concern to bewilderment. She inched a little closer. "My maternal grandmother was a hundred percent gypsy. Why?"
"Do you or did you know your grandmother at all?"
"Did. She died fifteen years ago."
"Do you remember her telling any stories about strange creatures her people had encountered over the centuries?"
"Yeah." She stretched that single syllable in an auditory gesture of feigned patience. "Just children's stories, bedtime stories about werewolves and vampires and strange creatures who were human, but had to eat raw meat."
I reached for her hand, taking it in mine, not squeezing it, just holding the soft, precious thing. "You know, back in the old country, I may have known your grandmother. In fact, I may even have known your great- or great-great-grandmother."
She yanked her hand away, abruptly stood and marched toward the door. "Okay, that's it. I've had enough." Her tone was annoyed, but still relatively calm in the placating way an overindulgent parent might speak to a petulant child. "I'm outta here. Thanks for a pleasant evening. Don't call me."
Nicole slammed the door behind her, leaving me to sit bewildered on my futon. Something metallic shimmered. She had left her father's book behind.