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Original Essays | Yesterday, 10:00am

Nick Harkaway: IMG The Florist-Assassins



The three men lit up in my mind's eye, with footnotes. They were converging on me — and on the object I was carrying — in a way that had... Continue »
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White Apples

by

White Apples Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Chocolate-

Covered God

 

 

Patience never wants Wonder to enter the house: because Wonder is a wretched guest. It uses all of you but is not careful with what is most fragile or irreplaceable. If it breaks you, it shrugs and moves on. Without asking, Wonder often brings along dubious friends: doubt, jealousy, greed. Together they take over; rearrange the furniture in every one of your rooms for their own comfort. They speak odd languages but make no attempt to translate for you. They cook strange meals in your heart that leave odd tastes and smells. When they finally go are you happy or miserable? Patience is always left holding the broom.

* * *

She liked candles in the bedroom. As far as Ettrich was concerned, candles were for churches, power outages, and the tops of birthday cakes. But he never said that to her, not even as a joke. She was very sensitive--she took whatever he said seriously. Soon after they met he realized he could hurt her easily, too easily. One nasty word or sarcastic phrase was enough to knock her flat. She confessed she had only recently gone beyond the point of feeling she had to please the whole world.

She said things like that. "I did drugs even though I hate them. But I wanted my boyfriend to love me so I took drugs with him. I was a terrible coward." She admitted to mistakes. Early on, she was willing to tell him some of her most revealing secrets. It was thrilling and disconcerting at the same time. He loved her a little.

One day while walking through town he passed the store. When it came to women, Vincent Ettrich's eyes were the most voracious part of his body. Even when he wasn't fully aware of it, his eyes saw everything that had to do with women: what they wore, how they smoked, the size of their feet, the way they pushed their hair, the shape of their purses, the color of their fingernails. Sometimes it took a second for him to realize something had already registered in his mind--a detail, a sound, a wisp. Then he would look again. Invariably his unconscious sensors had been correct--the sheen of sunlight off a green silk blouse pulled taut over a great pair of breasts. Or a hand on a table, a rough stubby hand, surprisingly connected to a chic woman. Or unusual almond-shaped eyes reading a French sport newspaper. Or just the radiance of a plain woman's smile that transformed her face completely.

The day they met, Ettrich walked by her small store. He'd passed it many times before on his way to work but never looked in the window. Or if he had he didn't remember what he saw. Part of the daily scenery, his life's backdrop. Today he looked and there she was, staring at him.

What did he notice first? Later he tried remembering that moment but came up blank. The full-length glass door to the shop was closed. She stared through it straight at him. Small. Maybe that's what struck him first. She was small and had the thin carnal face of a naughty angel. The kind of minor cherub lost in the corner of a fresco in an Italian country church. One with a holy expression, but something else is in that look, something wanton. It says the model for this heavenly spirit was probably the artist's mistress.

She wore a short blue summer dress that fell to just above the knees. Her looks didn't overwhelm him as some women's did, but he slowed and then did something strange. Ettrich stopped and waved at her. A small wave, his hand rose to about chest height. At the end of the gesture he thought why am I doing this? Am I nuts?

The air around him suddenly filled with the smell of hot pizza. He turned slightly and saw a guy walking nearby carrying a large white and red pizza box. When Ettrich turned back, the woman behind the glass door was waving back at him. For an instant, a second and a half, he wondered why is she doing that? Why is she waving at me? It was a nice wave, very feminine. Her right hand was pressed close to her chest, going back and forth like a fast windshield wiper. He liked the gesture and the way she smiled behind it--warm, not tentative at all. He decided to go in.

"Hi." He felt no hesitation. His heart was happy and calm. He was in his element. Vincent Ettrich had approached so many women over the years that he had his voice down to a science. This time it came out bright and friendly, good to see you! There was nothing dark in his voice, dark or macho or sexy in any way. If things went well in the next few minutes, he could use that stuff later.

"Hi." A small one in return from her, like a small child that looks at you hopefully and wants to come over but is wary. Her hand had turned in and rested on her left breast as if she were checking her pulse. "That was so nice. I liked that you did that."

His mind blanked. "Did what?"

"Waved to me. I don't know you but you waved. It was a little gift from a stranger."

"I couldn't resist."

She frowned and looked away. She didn't like that. Didn't want to hear yet another man say she was good-looking and he wanted to make contact. She just wanted that unexpected wave from a stranger and then return to her life.

"I saw you before you saw me," she said but still wouldn't make eye contact.

"I often walk past here but never looked in." He lifted his eyes and saw what was around him. It made him smile and then chuckle. They were surrounded by women's lingerie. Boxes and boxes of it--white, peach, black, mauve...Bras and panties, thongs and eggplant-colored slips, sheer nightgowns were on display everywhere. Everything a woman loves to put on and everything a man wants to take off her. Ettrich loved lingerie stores. He had been in so many and bought so much of it for different women.

"A 34-B?"

"Excuse me?"

She pointed to his chest and wiggled her finger. "I was guessing you were a 34-B in a bra?" She smiled at him and it was a great one, full of humor and mischief.

He caught her line drive and threw it right back at her. "Do many women come in here who are actually happy with their breasts? Just about every one I've known thinks theirs are either too big or too small. Breasts are a touchy subject with women." He waited a beat to see if she would catch his double entendre. The sly look that slid across her face and the way her eyes widened momentarily said she got it. Heartened, he went on. "It must be tough working here."

"Why?"

"Because every day you've got to please customers who generally aren't happy with their equipment."

Her smile returned slowly. She had small slightly crooked teeth. "Equipment?"

Ettrich didn't hesitate now. "Sure, and your job is to outfit that equipment with the latest battle gear."

She moved her arm in an arc meant to take in the whole store. "Is that what all this is, battle gear?" She kept smiling. She was enjoying him now. He had one foot in the door.

Ettrich took a copper-colored satin bra off the counter and held it up as if it were a piece of evidence in a court trial. "Put this color on top of beautiful black skin and you've created a binary weapon." He put it down and picked up a periwinkle-blue thong that weighed as much as a whisper. "And this is a ground-to-air missile. Deadly at any range."

"If you wear it for your boyfriend he's a goner?"

He nodded. "Right. And there's absolutely no equivalent for men. Do you realize that? There is nothing a man can wear that has the same effect on women that these things have on us. It's not fair."

Her eyes appraised him. Was this man being fresh or funny? Did she want the conversation to continue? He felt he could almost see the question mark above her head. One of those great early moments had arrived. They'd had their hello, the first talk and banter. Now the "should we go on?" pause was here. The next play was hers. He was eager to see what she would do.

"What's your name?"

"Vincent. Vincent Ettrich."

She put out her hand to shake but then for some unknown reason pulled it back. It threw him off until she said, "My name is Coco. Coco Hallis."

"No! Your name is really Coco Hallis? That's amazing."

"Why?"

"Because it's an unusual name but I know someone else with the same one."

Now she didn't believe him although it was the truth. He could feel his connection with her weakening so he went for the dramatic gesture. Taking his cell phone out of his pocket, he dialed a number. The young woman crossed her arms and leaned back on her heels--a gesture that said nothing else but "Show me."

Bringing the phone to his ear, he waited a moment and then quickly handed it to her. "Listen!"

Taking it hesitantly, she listened. In time to hear a female on the other end say in a firm professional voice, "Hi, this is Coco. I'm out of the country for the next two months. You can reach me in Stockholm at--"

Coco Two handed the phone back to Ettrich while the recorded message was still playing. "That's unbelievable. What are the chances of that happening? What does she do?"

Ettrich slid the phone back into his pocket. "Oil exploration. She travels around the world looking for undiscovered oil deposits. Comes back from crazy places like Baku and Kyrgyzstan with great stories about--"

"And what do you do, Vincent?"

Part two had arrived. Because he was quick-witted and adept at guessing what the next big thing would/could/should be, he was an early success. But a career in advertising did not impress women unless they were in the biz themselves. No, women wanted to be swept off their feet by both a man AND his profession. The majority wanted to imagine themselves on the arms of titans, geniuses, or adventurers: at the very least artists, whom they'd inspire to even greater heights of imagination.

"And what do you do, Vincent?" How many times had he been asked that question in all the years he had pursued women? What did he do? He tried to move people to buy ketchup, sanitary napkins, and mediocre automobiles. He splashed color and greed and beautiful people in viewers' faces to persuade them to buy whatever he'd been hired to promote. That was the true description of what he did; however, he had learned to distort and finesse his answer. "Creative consultant" was a favorite phrase of his, whatever the hell that meant. But he had long ago learned women's eyes lit up when they heard one was "creative" so he threw it in whenever he could.

"I'm a professional hot air balloonist," he said to Coco Two.

Spontaneously she barked out a great big laugh and waved both hands around, dismissing him as if even the idea was ridiculous. "You are not!"

It was exactly the response he wanted. He'd read her correctly. "You don't believe me?" He smiled innocently.

"No, I do not. Do you always dress in a suit and tie when you're going ballooning?"

"You never know who you're going to meet up there." His voice was calm and self-assured. She'd just called him a liar but he hadn't raised an eyebrow.

"No, really Vincent, what do you do?"

"I'm a crane operator."

"A crane?"

"Yes, you know those birds with the long legs--"

She hooted her laugh this time but it was as loud as the last one. It said she loved his joking around. "Come on, tell me!"

"I'm a French fryer. You know, dip them in oil, beret first--"

With some women the gimmick worked wonderfully. Distract them, make them laugh, but don't tell until you see their laughter fading and a wee bit of annoyance creeping in. That way when you did tell them, they were happy for the truth and almost grateful.

He watched the merriness fade in her eyes although her mouth was still lit with a big smile. The moment had come where if he didn't fess up she'd either be irked or think he was a weirdo.

"I'm in advertising."

"Are you good at it?" she asked without hesitation.

"Excuse me?" He'd never been asked that question before. Certainly not by someone he'd met only ten minutes before. Was he put off or intrigued by her chutzpah?

Picking up the blue thong he'd held moments before, she thrust it at him. "Sell me this. Tell me how you'd get me to buy it."

This was good, a sudden fun idea. Coco Two was turning out to be terrific. Playing along, he took the skimpy thing and stared at it. Ettrich was very good at his job and within seconds he had an idea.

"I wouldn't try to sell it sexy because that's what would be expected. You know the scene--a typically beautiful girl on a beach facing the water with her back to us, naked except for this. Nearby a cool-looking guy is staring at her. Forget it. Too mundane, too done, we've seen it a hundred times before. Are we doing a magazine campaign or TV?"

Coco crossed her arms and shrugged. She was pretending to be the client he was trying to impress. "Either. So no naked girls?"

"No naked girls. Use sex to sell dull things, things you don't think about--shaving cream, kitchen stoves. If you want to sell something that's already sexy, you should go in another direction."

"Like?"

In his pocket was a postcard he'd received that morning from his ex-wife Kitty. Although she loathed him, Kitty always sent good postcards. It was one of her ways of communicating with him without having to talk directly. This one was a photo of a tan Chinese Shar-Pei dog, that bizarre breed with so many wrinkles on its face and body that it looks like a large piece of melting caramel. The dog in the picture wore an ornate Mexican sombrero and looked heartbroken. Ettrich laid the postcard down on the counter. He took two empty three-by-five-inch file cards and a thick black marking pen out of his other pocket. With the pen he drew a large "X" across the dog's face on the postcard.

Coco looked at the picture, then at Vincent. He laid the picture down next to the thong on the counter. He wrote "MAN's BEST FRIEND" in large block letters on both file cards. He put one above the X'd-out dog picture, the other above the blue panties.

"Something like that. Go in that direction."

Vincent didn't look up once to see her reaction. Holding his chin in his hand he kept staring at his advertisement, still considering it. He was in her shop but more than that he was in his own world. His work mattered to him, even when he was being lighthearted about it.

* * *

Some weeks later he took her to the restaurant Acumar. Everything about the place was obnoxious but Ettrich knew that because he was a frequent customer. It was the favorite restaurant of the executives in his company. Even the waiters there wore beautiful double-breasted suits, white shirts, and ties. They handled both food and customers as if either might stain their expensive sleeves.

If you are a success in life, there are places you must go and pay to be humiliated. It is an unwritten law that human beings must be tormented throughout their lives in one way or another. If you are fortunate enough to have risen to a social level where no one does it to you for free, then you must pay for the service. Trendy restaurants, exclusive boutiques, any Mercedes-Benz dealer, or your very own personal trainer saying how fat and out of shape you are being a few examples.

"Why is this place called Acumar?"

Ettrich was about to eat a thimble-sized wedge of bread topped with what looked like a sardine head resting on top of a dandelion. "I think it's the name of the owner."

Coco kept looking over her shoulder and turning in her seat to check out the elegant restaurant and the other diners. Ettrich could have told her she wasn't supposed to do that in a restaurant like this because it made you look like a rube, but he didn't. Anyway it was kind of nice watching her do it. He was used to women who played things so cool that nothing short of the Second Coming made them raise an eyebrow.

She picked up her sardine/dandelion hors d'oeuvre, looked at it and wrinkled her nose. "I don't like fish. Is it okay if I don't eat this?"

"Of course." He put his back down as a show of solidarity.

"Acumar. It's funny--If you have a name like Bill and call your restaurant Bill's, it sounds like a dump. Call it Acumar, it sounds mysterious and exotic." She looked at the long silver menu open under her hands. "Everything looks good here, Vincent. What do you think I should have? Oh no, look at that!" She frowned at the menu and her eyes narrowed.

"What? What's the matter?"

"Look at the name of that one dessert--'Chocolate-covered God.' That's not nice. It's not funny and it's not nice."

Ettrich had to fight down a smile. Was she really that prudish and uptight about things? "Does that offend you?"

She was about to answer when a waiter passed in an obvious hurry. She put up a hand like a traffic cop to stop him. Something in the gesture or the look on her face stopped him instantly.

"I'm not your waiter but I'll get him for you."

"I don't want my waiter. I want you to answer a question."

"I'm really in kind of a hurry--"

"I don't care."

Both the waiter and Ettrich reacted the same way--they came to attention and watched her very closely.

"What is Chocolate-covered God?"

"Excuse me?"

"This dessert on the menu. See? 'Chocolate-covered God.' What is that?" She pointed at the menu and tapped the item with her finger.

Puzzled, the waiter leaned forward a little for a better look. He clapped a hand over his mouth. "Oh, that's a misprint! It's supposed to be chocolate-covered gob, not God! I've got to go tell Acumar immediately. Chocolate-covered God. Is that a scream or what?"

After he'd rushed off, Ettrich and Coco looked at each other. Neither said anything. When too many silent seconds had passed he chirped, "Looks like you saved Acumar's day."

She shook her head. "I doubt they'll take back all the menus and change them. I was only making a point. You were surprised by my reaction, huh?"

He knew she would be irritated if he lied so he didn't. "I'm not very religious. I gotta admit I thought it was funny too when I first saw it." He couldn't read her expression. Her normally active face was empty. She raised her eyes and looked at something behind him.

"Vincent?"

Glad for the distraction, Ettrich looked up and saw Bruno Mann standing above him. Mann worked for the same company. The men had frequently traveled together on business and were almost friends. Bruno looked deeply shaken.

"Hey, the Mann! How goes it?"

"I'm--Vincent, it's really you!"

"Well, yeah. Are you all right?" He hadn't seen Mann for a few weeks but the surprise on the other's face and in his voice made it sound like Ettrich had just returned from space exploration.

Still staring, Bruno touched his own cheek with two fingers and shook his head incredulously. His eyes were full of fearful wonder. He looked at Coco. She looked right back and didn't break eye contact.

"Bruno, this is Coco Hallis."

The two shook hands but nothing special passed between them--no friendly smile or nod, no how-do-you-do vibe. Neither seemed interested in the other. Ettrich's cell phone rang. Taking it out of his pocket, he looked at the screen to see who was calling. Kitty. His ex-wife never phoned unless it was very important, usually something to do with their children. He excused himself and walked the short distance out to the street to talk. He stood with his back to the restaurant, a finger in his free ear to block out the roar of city sounds around him.

"Hello?"

"Vincent? It's me, Kitty."

"Hi, you. What's up? Is everything all right?" He always tried to be friendly with her, friendly and upbeat. He still loved her in many ways, but she hated him cold black and deep and always would after what he had done to her and their marriage.

"The strangest thing just happened, Vincent. I don't know why she called me. I didn't even know the man very well. He was your friend but she called me instead."

Despite wanting to go back to the restaurant and Coco, Ettrich smiled. Kitty talked too much. Most of the time it was charming and he had learned over their married years how to tune in and out of her chatter without her ever seeing any sign of it on his face. Now while she rattled on, he turned and looked through the window back into the restaurant.

To his genuine surprise he saw that Bruno had sat down next to Coco and the two were talking. Coco was throwing her hands around, now and then pointing a finger at Bruno Mann. To all appearances it looked like she was scolding him. Bruno seemed contrite. He kept looking guiltily down at the table and then back up at Coco.

"--died. He just died. Isn't it amazing? The man was our age!"

Ettrich heard that red-light word and snapped to attention. "What? Who died? Kitty, I didn't hear what you just said. We've got a bad connection. Who died?"

"Bruno Mann. He had a heart attack. His wife just called me. She wanted you to know but why did she call me? She knows we're divorced--"

Ettrich was so stunned that he literally could not focus on anything. He blinked again and again as if he'd gotten something painful in both eyes. And he forgot he still held a telephone against his ear.

"Vincent?"

"I--Kitty--I'm...let me call you back. I can't handle this." He put his other hand to his forehead and closed his eyes. He could feel his heart racing in his chest. It was running away with him.

"Are you all right? I didn't know you were that close to Bruno." Kitty's voice was low, hesitant with concern.

"I'll call you back." He thumbed the disconnect button before she could say more. He continued to look at the small phone in his hand as if it could somehow help him. Maybe he could call someone and ask what do I do now? What the hell was Ettrich supposed to do? Go back into the restaurant and talk to the dead man? How could the man be dead and at the same time be sitting talking to Coco? Should Ettrich run away? He didn't want to do either. He didn't even want to look again to see what was happening at his table, but he did.

Bruno Mann was gone. Coco sat alone holding her long glass of red wine near her mouth while she looked around the room. Eventually they made eye contact. Smiling, she gestured for him to come back in. The dead man was gone. But where? Ettrich could go and ask her what they had talked about. He would have to be careful though because Bruno might still be nearby and who knows what would happen if he returned. Ettrich was many things but not a coward. Holding the silver phone in his hand as if it were a talisman against evil spirits, he made himself pull the door open and walk back into Acumar.

A lit candle was in the center of every table. They were a striking, unusual blue-gray that matched the color of the tablecloths. Coco had commented on it when they sat down, saying she would love to have a dress in that color. Walking across the room toward her now, Ettrich found himself looking at the candle on their table. The flame stood straight up in the air, unmoving.

"Vincent?"

For a second, half a second, a small but terrifyingly large moment, he was sure Bruno Mann had said his name. But then it came again and it was a woman's voice, Coco's voice. Because everything in his brain had run for cover, it took time for Ettrich to mentally regroup and think clearly once more.

In the meantime she said his name again, now more insistently. There was no question mark at the end of it.

All this time he had been looking at the candle flame. Suddenly he realized he was not looking at the blue candle in the restaurant but a yellow one. A yellow candle on the night table beside the bed. The bed Ettrich was lying on. On his side, he could feel his arm beneath him pressing against his body. He was lying in a bed looking at the unmoving flame of a yellow candle. All this came together and formed solid in Ettrich's mind. He sat straight up and barely choked out an "Uh!"

Behind him Coco asked, "What? What is it? You okay?"

They were in her bed. Seeing his bare knee, Ettrich realized he was naked. Shock. Recognition. Relief--all these emotions flew through and around him like a flock of banking, soaring birds. He was not in Acumar restaurant but in bed with Coco Hallis, staring at her yellow candle. Coco and her candles. No Bruno Mann. Ettrich must have fallen asleep and dreamed the whole damned thing!

She put a hand against his back and slid it slowly down his spine. "What's up? What's going on with you?" Her voice was sweet and sensitive.

"Jesus, I just had the most amazing dream. It was so fucking vivid, right down to the smallest detail. Even the color of the candles!" He shook his head and roughly rubbed his face to get the blood back into it.

Her hand slid slowly down and off his back. She yawned loudly. It annoyed him. He was still shivering from a tornado of a nightmare and she was yawning. But that wasn't fair. He'd had the dream, not her. He tried to will his irritation away. He wanted to turn around and look at her, put a hand on her and feel that soft skin. That would bring him back to earth. Coco was a sensational lover. The only woman he had ever been with who laughed like an ecstatic child whenever she came. The first time it happened she hesitantly asked if that bothered him. No, he liked it very much. Why was she asking? She said some men hated it because they thought she was laughing at them, no matter how much she denied it.

He wanted to touch her now and have sex. As he was turning to her she said something he didn't hear. She was lying on her stomach. The curves of her back and high round ass were on full display. She was easy with her body; said she liked it when he looked at her naked. Head turned away from him; her arms were stretched above her like a swimmer floating on the water. Ettrich put his hand on her ass. She didn't move. He slid it slowly up over her back, enjoying the rise and dips of her curves. Her skin was warm. He liked that very much--Coco's skin was always warm.

His hand went up higher to her shoulder blade and then over to the thin neck. She wore her hair short. He pushed it as his hand slid up the back of her head. He stopped. There was something dark on the back of her neck. Narrowing his eyes, he tried to make out what it was in the flickering light of her candlelit bedroom. He still couldn't see it. He didn't remember her having anything back there like a mole or a birthmark of any sort. Holding her hair up, he leaned over and looked more closely.

It was a tattoo. Looking black in the room's dim light, it was definitely a tattoo. Simple block letters that spelled "BRUNO MANN." The dead man's name was written into the back of Coco Hallis's neck.

Ettrich leapt up like he'd been scalded. He had been scalded. "What is this? What is that?" Backpedaling, he stopped halfway across the room. He jabbed an accusing finger at his pretty young lover who still hadn't moved. Coco remained in the same lifeless position. On her stomach, face turned away, arms over her head.

"Coco, look at me for Christ's sake! What is that? What is that tattoo?"

She said nothing and still did not move. For a moment Ettrich thought she was dead. He had seen her impossible tattoo and somehow his seeing it killed her. But that was insane. He wanted to go over and touch her. He also wanted to get dressed as fast as he could and get the hell out of there. "Coco!"

Finally she lifted her head and turned it slowly in his direction. She opened her eyes and looked at him. "What?"

"What is that tattoo? Why do you--"

She mumbled something he couldn't understand. It sounded like she was talking in her sleep.

"What? What did you say?" He took two steps closer to her. He had to. He had to know what she was saying.

She spoke louder. She sounded annoyed. "I said it was your dream. You know who Bruno is." Putting a finger to the back of her neck, she rubbed it up and down over the name there. Just that gesture made Ettrich do a whole-body twitch.

"But why--but how did it get on your neck? It wasn't there before. I know you never had it before today."

Coco pushed herself into a sitting position and looked at him. "That is correct. It's brand-new. Chocolate-covered God, Vincent. Remember that part of your dream? The part where you said you were not very religious?"

He froze. The woman knew his dream!

She reached over to the night table and picked up her pack of Marlboro Lights cigarettes. Pulling one out, she lit it from the yellow candle. The light in the room flickered as the small flame went from the table to her hand and back to the table again. She took a long drag and, letting her head drop back, blew the smoke in a thin gray line toward the ceiling. "Sit down, Vincent. Come smoke with me. You like to smoke." She looked at him and smiled.

Obediently Ettrich went over and sat on the corner at the foot of the bed. What else could he do? He wanted to say everything but could think of nothing to say.

"Come closer. I want to touch you." She motioned him over with her cigarette hand.

He shook his head, closed his eyes. "No, here is fine."

Slowly she lay back down and looked at the ceiling. Taking a drag off the cigarette, she tried to blow a smoke ring but it didn't form well. "How long have we known each other?"

She was so calm. Ettrich's world had just imploded but she was asking how long they'd been dating, for Christ's sake.

"A month and a half, two months. I don't know. Tell me about the tattoo, Coco. Please."

"I will but first you must listen to me carefully, Vincent, because what I'm going to say now is very important. All right?" Her large eyes moved slowly to his. Her expression demanded his attention. He nodded.

"Good. Do you remember your life before we met?"

The question was so peculiar and out of place that he wasn't sure he'd heard her correctly. "Do I remember my life? Of course I remember it." Anger like a blowtorch flared in his chest. What was this bullshit? "Why wouldn't I remember my life?"

"Then do you remember the hospital? Do you remember all the time you spent in the hospital when you became sick?"

"What?" Ettrich had the constitution of a dray horse. He was never sick. Once a year he caught a mild winter cold that usually lasted three days and gave him the sniffles. Sometimes he took an aspirin for a mild headache. Nothing else--even his teeth were healthy. The only reason he ever went to a dentist was to have them cleaned.

"What hospital? I was never in the hospital!"

"You don't remember Tillman Reeves or Big Dog Michelle?"

"Big Dog who? What are you talking about?" As soon as he asked that question, a picture slowly filled Ettrich's mind like thick liquid pouring into a glass. It was exactly that sensation--his brain slowly filled with the image of...a black man's disease-ravaged face looking straight at him and laughing. The man's teeth were yellow and large. His cheeks and eyes were very sunken but he was laughing.

Standing behind him was a BIG black woman wearing a white nurse's uniform. On her breast was a red nametag: Michelle Maslow, RN. She was smiling too but sternly, as if against her better judgment. Like a high school principal who's caught bad boys up to no good. Her size and the blazing whiteness of her dress were in severe contrast to the shrunken man in bed in front of her. Where she emanated health and strength, he looked more dead than alive.

Hands on her massive hips Nurse Maslow announced, "Now I know you made up that nasty nickname for me, Professor. Mr. Vincent Ettrich is a gentleman. He's not an ungrateful hamster like a certain Professor Tillman Reeves." Her voice was stentorian and magnificent. She could have ruled the universe with that voice.

His jolly albeit gravely ill eyes never leaving Ettrich, the man in bed barked. "Woof. Woof. Big Dog's in da house."

The nurse made an exasperated face and went tsk tsk tsk. "You keep it up like that and see what happens. A squeaky little hamstuh is all you are. Not like your very nice roommate here. Just because you're sick, Professor, doesn't mean you can be rude to your nurse."

Reeves's smile grew wider. He said to her over his narrow shoulder, "Just because I call you Big Dog Michelle does not mean I respect you any less, Nurse Maslow. Au contraire. One of the great experiences of my life has been meeting Cerberus before I die. I only wish I'd known you were a she and not a he all these years. In his Theogony, Hesiod said Cerberus had fifty heads, but having had the pleasure of your inimitable company all these weeks, I know that your one head is sufficient, madame."

She crossed her arms. "Fifty heads, huh? Well, you know what? I looked up that Cerberus you're always talking about. That's right. And if you're saying I'm the dog that guards the gates of hell, then you better watch out because I got a whole lot of bitin' teeth!"

"Woof."

She leaned forward as if about to reply. Her face broke into a big smile. Watching her, Ettrich realized she wasn't fat at all, just strapping. Her bare arms were packed with muscle. He was sure she could probably pick either of them up with no trouble.

And then the tent collapsed. That's what it felt like when Vincent Ettrich began to die. His whole being felt like a tent, a big circus tent, and someone jerked away the poles that held it up. His life collapsed like that tent while Michelle Maslow and Tillman Reeves laughed. It was more amazing than frightening because it happened so fast. He could not breathe. All at once everything stopped working--his mouth, his throat, his lungs. From one second to the next all of him just shut down. No gasp or cluck or choke even; a hand fluttering up for help. Because he was finished. Life left him a moment before he realized he was dying. Watching two nice people laugh, Vincent Ettrich died.

* * *

Of course things went black. Of course there came a total void. But it was palpable, tactile. It felt like he was standing in a small closet with the lights off. It felt. That's right: Now dead, Ettrich could feel. And as that astonishing realization sunk in, light came on again in a blinding blitz, like a flashbulb going off straight in his eyes.

"Congratulations, Vincent. It's about time you started seeing these things. Here's a souvenir for you. Hopefully the first of many."

The light still blinded him when he felt something being put into his hand. Hand. He had a hand. He could touch. He could feel. Slowly he looked down and felt/saw what had been placed there: a small square. A piece of paper, a photograph. Vision returning, he was gradually able to decipher the image there. When he did, his head reared back like he'd inhaled ammonia. Because it was a photograph of what he'd seen the moment he died: Tillman Reeves and Big Dog Michelle facing him and laughing.

Ettrich looked up from the photograph and realized he was again in Coco's bedroom, still sitting naked on the corner of her bed.

"Finally! I was beginning to lose hope." She sighed bluntly and got up from the bed. Without looking at him she padded across the floor and left the room. A few moments later he heard her pissing into the toilet next door. The sound of the flush and then a short burst of water in the sink. She came back into the bedroom and stopped. She looked at him, clearly amused.

"I died?" He almost couldn't say the word, the hard "d" at the beginning, the hard "d" at the end.

"Yes, Vincent, you died."

"I'm dead?"

"No, you were dead. Now you're alive again. Look around. Just like before. Your life continues."

He was shaking his head. He didn't realize it for a while. "Why? Why did I come back to life? Why can't I remember dying?" His voice was so small. It felt like it came from somewhere very far away but it came from him. Even his voice was betraying him now. At once, everything he had ever known made no sense at all.

Standing a few feet away, Coco took her hands off her bare hips and turned them upward as if to say "I don't know."

"Then who are you? At least tell me that."

She danced her head from left to right and back again--a silly little gesture. "I'm Coco the underpants girl."

"Please don't joke around. Who are you?"

"I'm your lover. Your treasure. Your treasure map. X marks my spot. You saw." She touched the back of her neck where Bruno Mann's name was written. "I'm here to keep you honest. Your guardian angel." She sang the title line of the song "Someone to Watch Over Me." "I'm all of the above and none of them. I'm here to help you find your way through all this, Vincent." And in a slight, silvery voice she added, "The moment you saw me for the first time in my store that day was the moment you were reborn. That's why I asked if you remembered your life before we met."

It was unbearable, too unimaginable and ghastly to absorb. Ettrich felt like puking. He put his face in his hands and tried to drag his sanity back into the corral. "I died? I died but came back to life, this same life?" He said it more to himself. He needed to say it out loud to hear how it sounded. Jerking his head up, he cried out to this woman and to God, "Then why don't I remember? Why don't I remember dying? Or being dead? How's it possible not to remember that?"

Coco squatted down like a baseball catcher ready for the next pitch. "You were in the hospital for a month with liver cancer. In the end they moved you into a room with Tillman Reeves who was also about to die. He called himself Tillman the Terminal. Big Dog watched over both of you."

Ettrich shouted, "But I don't remember that! Nothing! How can it be? How is it possible?" He thought he was going mad. "And I do remember things from before I saw you. I remember what I did that day. I remember putting on my clothes that morning..."

She shook her head. "No, you're making it up out of the life you used to know. The old days, Vincent. All those thousands of Tuesdays and Fridays and holidays and rainy days when your heart was still beating. You were sure you had all the time in the world. But you're scared now so you're just putting your hand into that sack and pulling out old memories."

The part that stuck was her saying, "when your heart was still beating." Ettrich had been about to say prove it--show me what you're saying is true. He was going to cross his arms, throw out his chin, and say "Prove it." But she stopped him with that phrase "when your heart was still beating." Past tense.

His left arm was leaning on his knee. He slowly turned it over. He put two fingers of his right hand on the inside of his left wrist and felt for a pulse. He did it while she spoke, hoping she wouldn't notice.

There was no pulse. He pushed harder with his fingers, searching. Nothing. He had no pulse. He put his fingers to his throat and felt for it there. Nothing. "When your heart was still beating." Vincent Ettrich's heart had stopped beating.

He began to shake. He shook like someone in the last throes of a terminal disease. His teeth chattered and he could not stop them. His sanity was drowning, barely clinging to a small piece of the wreck that until an hour before had been Vincent Ettrich--successful businessman, philanderer deluxe, satisfactory father, casual vegetarian, etc.

Face in his hands, eyes tightly closed, elbows on his knees, Ettrich began to rock back and forth. Without being aware of it he was making a sound--a kind of high humming or groaning. An almost inhuman sound that began in the pit of his stomach and rose sinuously up to his mouth and out into the world. It was fear and grief and desperation transformed into noise. Even Coco seemed disturbed by the eerieness of the tone, the pitch.

"Vincent."

He ignored her and kept keening. Face hidden, he rocked his body back and forth like a mad Jew at prayer.

"Stop wasting time. Pay attention to me."

He didn't stop. Fuck her! Wasting time? His entire being had just been given a cosmic enema but she was telling him to pay attention.

He heard gasps, catcalls, laughter, street sounds. So loud and close that he had to see what was going on. He opened his eyes just as a yellow cab passed nearby, splattering him with viscous puddle water. He leapt up. He had been sitting on a curb two feet from a snarl of rushing city traffic. He was still naked. The nightmare we all have at one time now surrounded Ettrich: the one where we alone are naked in the middle of some downtown city street. Everyone else around us is properly dressed and staring.

People were certainly staring at Ettrich. Staring, pointing, hooting. A few feet away, Coco Hallis stared at him too with furious eyes but she was naked too. Despite everything that had just happened, everything he had just learned, Ettrich still self-consciously covered his package with his hands. That made the crowd laugh and jabber even more.

A handsome thug in a brown leather jacket walked over to Coco and after looking her up and down appreciatively said, "Hey, baby, I'm buying whatever it is you're selling."

Ignoring him, Coco asked, "Are you ready to pay attention now?"

"Hey baby, don't be rude. I'm talking to you."

Coco turned slowly to the guy and said just loud enough for him to hear, "And now I'll talk to you, Bernie. You made two women pregnant but you won't take any responsibility for the children. You've never even seen them. You didn't go to your mother's funeral, and the woman you're sleeping with these days, Emily Galvin, is doing it a lot with another guy when you're on the road. Would you like to hear more?"

Bernie's eyes widened in trapped-like-a-rat alarm. He backpedaled away from Coco fast.

"Can we go now, Vincent? I'm getting cold out here." She gestured around them, taking in the whole city and the growing crowd that seemed to have gathered for the specific purpose of staring.

"Yes! Get us out of here."

Before he'd finished speaking, they were back in her bedroom. It was warm and dark and still funky smelling from their good sex not so long before.

"What am I supposed to do, Coco? What do you want me to do?"

She watched him but said nothing. Her silence was intimidating (especially in light of what she had just done), but not threatening. Ettrich knew for certain that she was waiting for him to figure out what to do next. Clueless, he felt for his pulse again and couldn't bear the fact there was nothing beneath his skin to certify that he was alive.

He remembered what it was like having a pulse. How it would thump hard in his throat when he was nervous at a business meeting or putting the first serious moves on a woman. If he lay on his left side in bed he could hear its dull double drumbeat, a sound that always made him vaguely uneasy.

We know the heart is there, we know the blood is there. But hearing the lub-dub of our pulse reminds us that we are only chugging machines and there is little godlike or immortal about our makeup.

Feeling his silent wrist now, he looked at it a long time as if trying to remember something. He took a deep, deep breath and let it out slowly, saying, "Man! Man oh man oh man..." As he said it he could hear a doorbell ringing way in the back of his mind's house. Some part of him went to answer it. Standing there larger than life was the word "Man" and behind it the name Mann: Bruno Mann.

It took a moment for it to sink in. Ettrich looked at Coco and said the name. She remained impassive but was clearly waiting for him to continue.

"If Bruno is dead but I saw him, then he's in the same situation as me. And you were talking to him in the restaurant. You said I came back to life the moment I saw you." One of the candle flames on her dresser sputtered. Ettrich glanced up and licked his bottom lip while his mind caught its breath and moved to the next thought. "So it's probably true with everyone this happens to--you meet them the moment they come back." Now he was talking out loud to himself. Coco was there but she was not as important as his own understanding. "I've got to find Bruno and talk to him about it." He tapped one index finger against the other and kept doing it. Things were becoming clearer; a plan was emerging. "Obviously you're not going to tell me more. So I've got to find him and compare notes. That's a plan. That makes sense, right?"

He looked up from his tapping fingers but Coco was no longer there. He remembered her saying she was cold. He assumed she'd gone to put on something warm. He sat there making a mental list of things to do next. He didn't feel good but he felt better. Ettrich was a pragmatist. He had more questions for Coco but was pretty sure she wouldn't answer them. He would just have to figure these things out on his own.

But there was one thing he had to know before he could proceed and only she could answer it for him. He couldn't go on with his planning until she gave him some kind of answer. Suddenly impatient, he stood and went to find her.

For a Guardian Angel or Grim Reaper or spirit or whatever she was, Coco chose to live in a pretty meager apartment. One bedroom, a living room that doubled as a dining room, kitchen, bathroom, basta. It took Ettrich all of two minutes to walk through her place and discover she was gone. It didn't even surprise him. He could only shrug. What did it mean? Was she gone for good or had she just disappeared for now?

A white couch sat under a window in her living room. In front of it was a round glass table. Ettrich saw two things lying on it he knew hadn't been there before. Coco didn't like things on the table. She had told him that. He walked over and saw they were photographs. One was the picture he had already seen of Big Dog Michelle and Tillman Reeves laughing. The other was a close-up of Coco's neck with the Bruno Mann tattoo on it.

Holding one in each hand, he looked back and forth between them. A tattooed neck and two black people laughing. The images meant little but he knew they were his new beginning. As he walked back to the bedroom to get dressed, it came to him that if he couldn't find Bruno then he would next go looking for Michelle Maslow.

 

Copyright © 2002 by Jonathan Carroll

Product Details

ISBN:
9780765303882
Author:
Carroll, Jonathan
Publisher:
Tor Books
Location:
New York
Subject:
General
Subject:
Love
Subject:
Death
Subject:
Fatherhood
Subject:
Reincarnation
Subject:
Fantasy - General
Subject:
Fantasy fiction
Subject:
Fantasy - Contemporary
Subject:
Pregnant women
Subject:
magical realism
Copyright:
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Series Volume:
5J02-03
Publication Date:
October 2002
Binding:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
320
Dimensions:
8.5 x 5.5 x 0.712 in

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