My favorite job

I met Belladonna on a movie set, so it’s only natural that she thought I knew something about movies. From the start she was a better conversationalist than I was, more open and sincere, but she eventually tired of trying to reach me through cinema. ‘Do you remember in…’ she would ask, only to be confronted by my apologetic shrug. The list of movies I haven’t seen is immense, and finally she got tired of saying “I can’t believe you haven’t seen…”

There was a period when I felt very comfortable with Belladonna, when there was a mutually understood vast gulf between us. In fact, even now she is one of the few members of the XX set that I can just chill with, although I haven’t seen her for quite some time.

She would be surprised, I think, to learn that once it was my job, my paid profession, to watch movies and talk to people about them.

Once upon a time there was a video store. This is not a David and Goliath story; this little video store had managed to carve out a big chunk of the Southern California market. The way they accomplished this feat was remarkable, however. Get this: they succeeded with two crazy gambits. They offered bulk discounts (if you rent a lot of movies you don’t pay as much), and they offered good customer service.

In each store, much of the time, there was an extra person on payroll whose job was to hang out and talk about movies with the customers. That was it. Much of the time customers would approach that person for recommendations, but other times the movie whisperer would simply strike up a chat with indecisive renters. Did you see X? What did you think? If you’ve got a big sound system, you’re hurting yourself if you don’t see ‘Mission’.

You hit a couple of good recommendations, people are looking for you later. You miss, people are almost apologetic that they didn’t like it, but when they explain why you can nail the next recommendation. My job, even though I ostensibly was in management, was to watch movies at home and to talk about movies at work. I did that job well.

Some of you, the ones who have bought whole-heartedly my craftily-constructed image as an antisocial recluse, capable only of communicating through grunts and belches (and when confronted with a female simply losing consciousness), might be surprised to learn that I did very well in this role. Here’s why: It was a controlled transaction. I can deal with strangers, I can even deal with surprises. It’s uncertainty that’s tough.

Log jam in my head. So many metaphors, so many moments.

Back to Video Library. It was easy work, pleasant work, and almost none of the other people there wanted floor duty. Even people who loved to talk movies with coworkers dreaded going out and talking movies with strangers. So I would do it. It was better than working. It made it easy to go into the office each day. Working with Wendy and Maryann didn’t hurt, either.

Wendy. For a long time she thought I was gay because I didn’t hit on her. I wasn’t gay, I was just afraid. When I dropped a semi-truth to establish my heterosexuality I became a curiosity to her, a science experiment. Had the stars shifted a little bit one way or the other, placing me at the top of the stairs at a party rather than at the bottom, putting me in the back seat rather than in the front seat, I would have come to know all that lay behind the promise that was Wendy. Oh, stars! Still you taunt me so!

Wendy’s friend — I’ve called her Maryann, but as I sit here and remember it seems like there’s been a awful lot of Maryann’s in my life. More than is natural; I suspect I’m painting old faces I remember affectionately with a name I also like. None of them will ever touch the real Maryann, young and poised with dark hair and fair skin and, yes, buxom — she sat at the back of the bus, her stop beyond mine. She sat three rows behind me when I told the lie to Suzie (Susie? oh, please forgive me I don’t remember), the horrible lie that would have been nothing but I repeated it, and again; there was no cock to crow but the betrayal was just as real. And three rows behind was Marianne, cool and perfect and unaware. I never felt as alone as I did at her birthday party.

Which all leads up to Michelle. Susie introduced us; I think she was relieved to divert me. Michelle liked me. I didn’t really understand that, then, and even now it mystifies me. Michelle. To me she was (and still is) some unattainable thing, and I considered myself a dalliance and treated her the same way. We did not share our dreams. We did not reveal our secrets. But now, much too late, much too late, I realize that she liked me. At night, sometimes, I wonder what might have been, even though I know the answer. There is a little echo of her in every strong, intelligent woman I write. I miss her, and hope she is well. I doubt we shall ever speak again. I don’t think I’d have anything to say, even if we did.

That was before Wendy, before this particular Maryann, before Video Library. It was all a long time ago. It was a good job, though, talking about movies.

Mind Share

I’ve been stretched lately. Not for time; I’m busy but no busier than usual. Concentration seems to be the scarce resource. There are a couple of things that are eating all that my head has to offer, so when it comes time to answer emails or preside over the message forums at the Hut, my good intentions glance off the task like an Apollo capsule bouncing off the atmosphere and condemning its occupants to being the first interstellar humans.

I know that to run a successful business I have to be there for the folks, and I know that to run a successful blog I have to be here. I haven’t the slightest idea what it takes to be a successful writer, though. Sucks that that’s what I want to be.

Zima!

The phrase “since the communist era” is an overworked one when discussing the weather; it’s as if the weather patterns were affected somehow by the Velvet Revolution. My first winter here was the coldest winter since communist times. There was a period of almost a month where the temperature never got above freezing. Not even once. The mercury never so much as poked its head above the zero line, groundhog-like; it stayed in the cellar. That winter, it was a notable event when I stepped in mud one day, simply because there was mud to step in.

Last winter was the snowiest since the communist era. Memories of the flooding a few years ago had locals looking pensively at the deep snow in the mountains, and when spring rains accelerated the melting process there was a feeling of held breath. I expect there was as much water this time as last, but the powers that be managed the potential disaster much better this time. (Thanks, Austria, for not screwing us over this time!)

This winter is only two days old, so it’s hard to characterize. The temperature is finally below freezing, and I pulled out my winter coat (thanks, Mom!) last night for the first time. Somewhere in Ireland my gloves, my beloved hunters gloves lie, and I miss them right now. (They are fingerless, but with a mitten flap that can be folded over the digits when they’re not typing. MaK dethumbed them for me, making them the only harsh-weather typing gloves on the planet.) Although I am ill-equipped this year, I welcome the cold. It’s one of the things that has forged the national character of the Czechs, an active character in the story of life here.

A Little Bit of Humor for You

A regular at the Little Café Near Home told me this joke last night. I offer it to you as a lesson about the culture I am now surrounded by. (This is not a verbatim rendition, my rambling instincts are evident in the retelling.)

An American, a German, and a Czech were exploring the deepest jungles of the Amazon when they were captured by a tribe of cannibals. They were trussed up and brought before the chief. With three large pots heating over roaring fires behind him, the chief addressed the captives. “You will each be given two glass spheres,” he said, “and placed in separate huts. I will visit each of you in turn. If you can show me something with the spheres that I have never seen before, I will set you free. Otherwise, you’re on the menu tonight.”

The three captives were each given a pair of glass balls and taken to their huts.

First, the chief visited the American. When he entered, the American was sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor, with his hands in front of him. Over each hand a glass ball was hovering, in complete defiance of gravity.

“Seen it before,” said the chief.

Next he visited the German. Like the American he sat in deep concentration. He was moving his hands fluidly, and the spheres were flying about the room in a graceful dance.

“Seen it,” said the chief.

Finally, the chief visited the Czech. He entered the hut and returned almost immediately. The tribe waited for the verdict. The chief shook his head. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “It’s been five minutes and the guy broke one of the balls and lost the other.”

The Metrics of Rockin’ Out

It’s a short walk from the Little Café Near Home to my place. (Kinda makes sense, doesn’t it?) Not far out the door, the song ‘Heroin Girl’ came up the wires and into my ears. The wind was chill, but still lacking that true Czech winter bite. The streets were dark and quiet, and I’m pretty sure there were no witnesses to see me covering the last hundred meters to my front gate. (I looked back furtively as I worked the lock; LCNH was closing and at least one of the other patrons that was still there lives on my street. All clear. Whoo. I’ve got a reputation to maintain.

Nick Cave came on next, and I love the guy, but this was not the time for cerebral music. On the stairs up to my flat (no acceptance letters waiting on the stairs), I skipped on to The Jack Saints explaining in electrical mayhem that Gin’s A Good Man’s Brother. Shoes off, moves on, it was time to let go. The Mars Volta only added to that, followed by Gwen Mars, the culprit of my last Rocking Out Injury.

My thermostat is set for 20; cool but comfortable. Right now it is 23 in here. The heater is not going; that heat came from me. (Residual radiator heat must certainly be a factor, although the radiators are also covered with laundry right now, reducing their efficiency.) It was the Hives that put things over the top, and then when Alkaline Trio came on, that was the end. I was, in fact, the quintessential iPod commercial, holding the player in one hand (it kept falling out of my pockets, and I came to appreciate that when the headphones come out, the player automatically stops), white wires connected to my head flinging about with my body motion.

I was not, however, a vague shadow that reminds me somehow of the antishadows left by mannequins on the sides of buildings after nuclear tests. I was 3D, a little more 3D than I’m happy about being, which just increased the work required to move this body in ways that the kids can only envy. (I assume that their laughter is based on jealousy.)

Things are cooling, now, and I have a screenplay due tomorrow. Using Final Draft Pro for the last few days has really helped me appreciate just how cool Jer’s Novel Writer is.

Appropriately, the music is following the script, mellowing; Toad the Wet Sprocket is covering a Kiss tune. I want to rock and roll all night, party every day.

Dream a Little Dream

This morning as I drifted in and out of consciousness, I had a series of dreams. (I started to say strange dreams, but that would imply that there is another sort.) At one point in a dream I was getting increasingly embarrassed by a chain of events and the people responsible for them. I was starting to wake up, I suppose, because the idea that this was a dream started to make sense. I calmed myself. Only a dream. “Maybe,” I thought, “But they don’t know that!”

Random Stuff

I’m listening to Saint Low right now. Johnson City. Somehow in that narrative there is something important, something more complicated than love, and it will be lost. They are going to Johnson City, but it feels like the last time. Something’s changed; it’s heavier now. The trip is destroyed by its own significance.

The singer would probably laugh at my interpretation.

I watched hockey tonight, the electric hypnosis coming at times from different hemispheres. During the first intermission of the Sparta/Slavia (rhymes with Yankees/Mets) game, the owner of the Budvar Bar Near Home switched to Rugby. Amazingly (at least to me), one of the teams playing was one that I had seen during the calm part of new year’s eve in Ireland. The game was in its final moments, but is was close and hard-fought. I’m not sure how the players differentiated each other — they were all the color of mud.

Sport, mate. Sport.

There were times when the team with the ball was stalled, and there was a pile. Who gets the ball in such a pile is carefully regulated, but when you can’t move the ball from under the pile, you have to move the pile off the ball. It has been argued that the pads in the NFL actually increase the injury rate, and watching these guys, that’s easy to believe. When the progress of the ball is stalled and the pile is forming people will fly in, head first, smashing into the pile without regard for personal safety. We’re talking about big people, and big hits.

As far as I can tell, there are three reasons a man might fling himself at a pile like that. First, he could hope to move the pile. Second, he might take one of the other team off the pile, someone who had good leverage. Third, he might just like to crash into people, without regard for personal safety. I think to play that game there must always be a bit of reason three.

The whistle blew, the game was over, and they unpiled themselves and began shaking each other’s hands. It was an easygoing, natural sportsmanship that limits the cheap shot because you’re going to be looking those guys in the eye when the game is done, and ideally you’ll be buying each other beers down the street. That is sport.

Saint Low is now telling me that I can just walk on by, like she’s no one. I just wish I could tell her how wrong she is.

Soup Boy sent me an invitation tonight, chocolate night at some club or another. I do like chocolate, but the launch time for the festivities is about now, and I am well and truly done for the day. In fact, today is about done for the day.

Hockey. I was pulling for Slavia, the other Prague team, mainly because they weren’t Sparta, easily the Yankees (ca-ching!) of Czech hockey. It was a good game, back and forth, with both sides pulling off some of those passes that have you saying “Wha — wow!” The game went to a shootout. While I will always rail against the shootout in any team sport (reducing a contest that is supposed to be about how a group of people work together to a series of one-on-one events is a disservice to the entire sport, whether hockey, soccer, or whatever), this was an interesting one to watch. It went long, and I noticed a pattern that held. If the shooter glanced down, even for the tiniest of moments, at the puck, he missed. The shooters who never, ever took their eyes off the goalie scored and made it look easy. Nothing fancy, just smack it by the guy.

I’m pretty sure there’s not a useful life lesson there.

After that game we switched to NHL. They play on a smaller surface and at first the skaters seemed unnaturally large. In the past I’ve preferred the North American version of Hockey, but with the recent rules changes they’re caught in middle ground, no longer the hard-nosed pounding game I like, but without the room to be a game of finesse.

Johnny Cash is telling me that it’s the time of the preacher, in the year of ’01; when you think it’s all over, it’s only begun. I’m pretty sure he’s right about that.

My team, the Flames, they still play old-school hockey. (Incidentally, this means they’re doomed.) That is only secondary to why I am a Flames fan; it would be more accurate to say that I am a Flames-fan fan. I’ve already documented it in these pages, no sense in digging up old laundry and all that, but never before and never since have I seen a row of pretty girls neglecting their jobs because they simply could not tear their eyes away from the hockey game.

I wonder what apartments go for in Canmore.

I only had the one Johnny Cash song handy, now Nick Cave is singing about a woman with a dead man in her bed. I’m pretty sure she’s not referring to me. She’s never met me.

There are times, looking out at the city at night, at all the lights, the sound and the motion; it seems busy but for all that there are no people. My window is just another sparkle.

Important Safety Tip

It was colder today, though still warmer than it should be. My wardrobe is limited; today I chose one of my favorite chill-weather shirts, a hoodie that was given to crew members after the filming of Hostel. I didn’t work on the film, my shirt comes via the largesse of others. I mentioned a couple of days ago that I didn’t think much of the movie, but whatever negative feelings I have for the flick are nothing compared to the hatred that many Slovaks have toward it. That nation does not come out looking very good in the movie. Not good at all.

Tonight I found myself at Pizzeria Roma, one of the best places to watch international hockey in this town, as long as you’re rooting for the Slovaks instead of the Czechs. I was sitting at my table, working on a screenplay of all things, when some of the regular Slovaks arrived. I recognized a couple of them, although I haven’t been there in a while. I was just finishing a read-through of the first draft of Revenge of Home Textiles when a local came to my table and sat across from me.

“You speak English?” he said, more from politeness than as an actual question. I closed my laptop and prepared for Conversation. “You made Hostel?” he asked. “No,” I said, “but my brother worked on it.” I gestured to the chair fuego had occupied some time before, although he had already left before this guy arrived.

“I do not think that was a good movie,” he said.

“I think it was a terrible movie,” I replied. “Horrible.”

We went back and forth like that for a while. “That movie… I was in America in 1997. Americans don’t even know where Europe is. When a movie like that makes Slovaks look so bad, and others…” he hesitated. “I don’t want to argue…”

“I think we agree,” I pointed out.

“Do you know Quentin Tarrontino?” he asked. “Maybe you could tell him what we think.”

I laughed. “No, I don’t know him.” (I don’t even know how to spell his name, it seems.) “He just put his name on the movie anyway. I’m not sure why because Hostel really sucks. The guy who made it was Eli Roth. I met him once and he seemed like an asshole, but I was not my best that night either.” In fact on the night in question I was far from my best. Eli probably thought I was an asshole as well, if he thought of me at all. There is at least one person at that party who thought I was an asshole. All that’s neither here nor there; I expect that all my Slovak interviewer heard was “guy who made it” and “asshole”. That was enough for this conversation.

“You could tell him…?”

They don’t care what I think.” Emphasis on they. “I’m surprised the Czechs let them film the second one here.”

“There’s another one?”

I guess that movie’s not out yet. Word on the street is that it sucks less than the first one, but I doubt I’ll ever find out firsthand. I nodded grimly, kicking myself for being the one who brought that particular bit of news to Pizzeria Roma.

There wasn’t much for us to say after that; his attempt to lodge a protest with the powers that be in Hollywood had failed utterly. I mentioned that just two days ago I had written on the Internet that I didn’t like Hostel, and that seemed to satisfy him. He returned to his people to report on the outcome, and I went back to work.

An aritficial rose, by any other name…

I am in a café called Meduza right now; it is early afternoon and there is already far too much caffeine in my system. fuego tells me that I should recognize the place, having seen the movie Hostel — in the film the place is ostensibly in Amsterdam, and some semblance of plot development occurs there. If you watch the movie (I don’t recommend it, but those things happen), you can snap out of your coma for that scene and tell yourself, “hey, Jerry wrote a blog episode there!”

If I look up from my laptop and past fuego’s shoulder, there is a woman drinking some sort of tall, layered drink that might involve chocolate. She is distracting; I think she is used to people looking at her, but for me the fascination is a little different than the effect she is trying to achieve, I suspect. By any empirical measure she is attractive; her hair is long, with multiple layers of varying blondeness, her eyebrows are perfect arches over her wide brown eyes. Her skin is a deep salon bronze, her lip color carefully selected to match. Her clothes are simple but work well on her. The overall effect isn’t beautiful, however, and certainly not pretty; she is well-crafted.

As I wrote that last sentence she was joined by a friend (an English tutor, it turns out), very American, and I will admit that the artificial woman’s voice is very pleasant, smooth and low so that her words stay at her table, in sharp contrast to the penetrating nasal quality of the newcomer. So she’s got that going for her, and that’s a pretty good thing. She’s got the Czech cheekbones as well. The natural qualities are there, but she has chosen to hide them beneath a layer of artifice, an attempt at perfection that undermines and distracts from what is already there.

Clearly, this woman needs a coach, someone in her corner to give her the confidence to let her genuine qualities speak for themselves. Someone like me. She’s caught me looking her way a couple of times, and I know what she’s thinking: “That guy obviously has a discerning eye and a healthy disdain for convention. I bet I could learn a lot from him.” It’s either that or she’s thinking “Someone should teach that guy to dress better, and trim that scruffy beard.”

It could be either one. Fifty-fifty, I figure.

The Tip of My Tongue

An hour ago I was writing, putting another layer of polish on a story I don’t know where to send. I was wrestling with a sentence. It was good, but I thought with the right tweaks to it and the paragraph around it, it could be great. Great doesn’t happen very often, not often at all, and I was going for greatness with everything I had.

I sat back at one point, distancing myself from the work for a moment, and thought about something interesting. Something essay-worthy. I mentally composed a few sentences and eyed the button that would bring my blog software forward, thinking that I should jot down a few notes. Before I did that, however, I had an idea for the story at hand, and back I went.

Now, I remember having the idea. I remember mulling the idea. I don’t remember the idea. I haven’t given up on it; ideally there will be an episode immediately after this one that is insightful and erudite, shining a literary beacon on the human psyche.

Right now, however, I’m pissed off.

Shut Out, the Sequel

I typed the previous entry on Friday night at a little place called Gurmán, which does not cater to the kids and so is crowded and smoky at different times. I wandered in out of the soft rain and chose a small table. There were a few guys leaning on the bar, but only one table was taken; a guy in a blue windbreaker that identified him as a transit worker sat at the opposite end of a row of three small tables. With a glance I surmised that he had been there for a while.

Normally I start with tea, but Gurmán doesn’t really seem like a tea sort of place. When the girl finally decided to stop by my table I ordered a Mušketýr (rhymes with “Musketeer” and with “beer”), and after coming up dry for new words to write I set to work editing some older ones.

The guy two tables over asked me something in czech. I thought he wanted to know what time it was, but I was a bit tentative when I answered. I’m pretty sure what I said was correct, but he apologized and asked me the time again in broken English. I answered again, he thanked me, and turned back to his beer. For a few minutes, anyway. Before long he was back. In czech he told me his name, Petr, and I told him mine, Džerý. In english he asked if I could look at something on the Internet for him. “Promín, nemám Internet,” I said, or something like that. He returned to his beer.

A short time later, when we were both wondering if the beer girl was ever coming back, he called out my name. I don’t remember what he opened with, but it was obvious he just wanted to talk. Wait — I do remember. He called me a workaholic. I explained in a mixture of languages that I had been lazy all day, so now I needed to work. This time there was no avoiding that the guy wanted to converse. We began to chat, but my eye was on the dwindling battery meter on my computer. I really did want to wrap things up before I ran out of electrons. Finally I did something which is very difficult for me; I asked the guy to give me ten minutes while I finished my work. He was a little affronted, I think, but more apologetic. “Deset minute,” I promised.

The battery actually lasted longer than ten minutes, but in the meantime Petr joined the guys at the bar and some of them moved to a table. I kept working and a few more people came in, and the service went from “rare” to “almost never”. After perhaps twenty-five minutes the computer surrendered to entropy, just as I had managed to score a precious beer after intercepting the beer girl on her way from the bathroom. I felt the covetous eyes of those around me as I nursed my hard-won nectar. I let my eyes be dazzled by the flickering lights of the American action film playing on the plasma screen at the far end of the bar (not that far away), sipped my beer, and let my mind wander. This was my state when Petr passed my table on his return trip from the bathroom. “May we please buy you a drink with us?” he asked, very earnestly. Obviously I had no choice.

And so it was I found myself sharing a table with tram drivers, sharing almost no words between us. They were pleased that I identified the Becherovka by its smell. I tried to ask them if it was my fault that the tram barn doors were closed, but once they realized that I wanted to know more than just what the tram barn is called in Czech (I never found out), they thought I wanted to take a picture with the doors open. I never did explain that the doors to the barn had been closed ever since they chased me and my camera away a few months before. (It seems there was a terror alert at the time.)

It was getting late, and before long it was just Petr and me at the table. Petr was quite drunk, and the beer girl had implemented the “cut off through bad service” policy. It took me a while to realize that we had lost the “almost” in “almost never”, and not long after that I wished Petr a good night and made my way out into the cold and dark.

At that moment, I didn’t feel like going home. There’s nothing wrong with home, but I decided to continue my downward trend and turned left out the door and headed for the Herna by the Metro Station. I should look and see what the name of that place is someday. I don’t go into that place often. I’m received warmly there, but it’s difficult to work. Often when I go there, I stay too long. Friday night is a case in point.

I was happy to see that Pavel was there, and a couple of other faces I recognized. I had been drinking, but they were way ahead of me. There was a debate going on over which Irish whiskey was better, and there had been quite a bit of research. One guy, let’s call him Martín, has always been a cheery conversationalist, but this time his head was on the bar and he was not moving. “He’s fine. He just needs a little nap,” Pavel explained. I sat and while the debate continued to my left, the guy to my right struck up a conversation with me. His tone was oddly aggressive, however, and before long I let the action on the other side of me absorb my attention.

I began to feel a strangely hostile vibe in the place, but as long as I had friendly people to talk to, I was all right. Eventually, after I had reviewed the Jameson side of the whiskey argument myself, another guy on my right struck up a conversation. He was much friendlier, but I think I might have annoyed him by not being impressed enough when he told me that he worked for the big movie studio here in town. When he told me some of the movies he had worked on, I said, “You must know my brother!” and described fuego’s jobs on those same films. I think he took that as one-upsmanship, even though I really just wanted to find out if I had run into a mutual acquaintance. So that potentially friendly conversation died young.

Pavel slapped Martín’s back and his head popped up like a jack-in-the-box. “Džerý!” he said, and happy conversation resumed for a while.

I may have things out of sequence, because I suspect I was talking to the movie guy when the fight broke out. I was looking down the bar in that direction, at least, when the scuffle started behind me. I turned and Martín was in a hockey-style grab-jackets-and-swing-fists-without-aiming type of scuffle with another patron. Pavel moved to intervene and I backed him up, gently pushing the newcomer back while asking “Proč?” over and over. It didn’t really matter why, and I wouldn’t have understood if he told me. He seemed to be alright so I turned and put my hands on Martín’s shoulders and drove him back.

Before long Pavel had Martín in a taxi, the other combatant was back at his table (one of the few nestled between the slot machines in that place) with his friends, occasionally mouthing off to other people around him. Not long after that another guy started a conversation with me, this time making no attempt to disguise that he was trying to provoke me (a singularly pointless exercise in those circumstances), or trying to get me to say something he could use as a provocation. Eventually after about his third declaration of “I don’t speak English” (after he had initiated the conversation in that language) I tried to use as much Czech as possible, which was so slow that eventually he made one last gambit by accusing me of snubbing the German language, then went away partway through my tortured, multilingual explanation of why I chose French in school. After all, he could hardly use my attempts to speak Czech as a justification to be offended, and I simply wasn’t capable of putting together a sentence complicated enough for him to take the wrong way. Or much of any sentence, for that matter.

After that things mellowed, but the air of hostility was still there. I was just on the edge of it; I get the feeling that most of the anger was between groups or individual regulars, but they had enough left to throw some my way. I was even caught up in it a little bit toward the end, annoyed at those people for working so hard to be annoyed by me. As they say in Get Crazy, “Anger is a bummer, Neal.”

I don’t know what time it was when I got home. I puttered around for a bit and tried to pour as much water into my system as I could, but before long I flopped unceremoniously into bed, unscathed but not particularly looking forward to Saturday morning, which fortunately came along not long before Saturday afternoon.

Shut out at the Little Café Near Home

You know there’s not a lot happening in your life when not being able to go to one of your favorite spots is noteworthy. This evening I bundled up and made the short walk through light rain. There’s a definite chill in the air now that’s been missing so far this winter, and I was underbundled, but not too badly. I almost didn’t even walk into the LIttle Café; just a glance in the window showed almost all the tables to be packed full. There is one table in the corner not visible from the street, however, and I considered the possibility that the group gathered around the other tables might be scaring people away from that one.

The table was taken, of course, and once more I was adrift. I suspect this will become more and more common; even as the available seating in the café decreases (as opposed to the “club” downstairs which isn’t open yet), the popularity of the place is steadily on the rise. It’s not surprising; the place has a good atmosphere and people know each other there. It’s the sort of place that invites hanging out.

It’s like California — it’s a great place to be; I just wish not so many other people agreed with me.

Episode 22: Never on Sunday – Reprise

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here. Continuity issues are probably starting to pile up, but so it goes.

It was a little too warm for comfort in the limo, but at least it was dry. Jorge offered a clean handkerchief to Alice, the one I had given her was now covered with spots of blood. He gave instructions to the driver and pulled out into the teeth of the storm. We had the streets to ourselves, if you could still call them that; the cars might have benefitted from pontoons. The wind howled up the boulevards, driving the rain before like bullets, hammering against the windows loudly enough to make conversation difficult. We moved slowly, which was fine with me. I was pretty sure things were not going to get better when we reached our destination.

“Where are we going?” Alice asked over the storm.

“To visit a friend of mine,” our host answered. “A doctor. We need to get all your teeth back in before you need to bite someone again.” He chuckled inaudibly. “He is quite experienced at treating wounds like yours, and he should also be able to do something about Mr. Lowell’s damaged hand. He is also skilled at not asking questions.”

“What’s your name?” Alice was not skilled at not asking questions, and probably never would be.

“Please pardon my manners.” He offered her his hand. “My name is Santiago.”

“What’s this about a Saint? I thought that was a painting.”

“There is a painting with that name, but we are the true blood of the saint.”

“I don’t get it.”

“It is not important. For now the painting is the matter of concern. It was taken from us, and we would like it back. Your partner will be helping us.”

“I don’t recall seeing you in the client book.”

“Of course we will pay for his services.”

“Our rates have gone up recently. We just gave the staff raises.” I held my breath as a scowl stole across Santiago’s face. Alice had a lot of good qualities, but diplomacy was not one of them. There was still no guarantee that our payment would not take the form of a one-way trip to the bottom of the river.

Santiago calmed himself, leaning back in the seat facing ours, watching us with brown eyes just a little too close together, framing a nose that had been broken at least once. He had a scar on one cheek. Santiago had been around the block once or twice himself. When he smiled he revealed a gold tooth. “I like her,” he said to me. “Tell me, what have the various parties offered for the painting?”

“I’m not even sure who all the parties are.”

“Where is the painting now, Mr. Lowell?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you know someone who does.”

“I know someone who says she does.”

“Where is she now?”

“You already know I don’t know.”

“I just know you say you don’t know. I wanted to hear you say it with my own ears.”

“I don’t know. I know where I left her. I chose the place to keep her away from her own people, but it’s been too long. She won’t sit still that long.”

“But it’s possible she’s still there, or that she might go back. You are still useful to her. She might even want to be with you for… other reasons.”

I didn’t dare look at Alice, but I felt that side of my head get warm. “If she wants to, she will find a way to contact me.” If she didn’t decide to kill me instead.

“Where did you leave her?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“Why not? You already agreed to give her to Paolo Fanutti.”

“Because she’ll kill Fanutti. He doesn’t stand a chance. This way any reprisals won’t come my way.”

Santiago laughed. “A creative way to solve your problem. What if I warn him?”

“You know Paolo, apparently. Do you know his sister-in-law?”

“Only by reputation.”

“That reputation is well-deserved.”

Alice was watching me, her face inscrutable behind the handkerchief. “I think we should drop her as a client. She’s nothing but trouble.”

I didn’t think Alice was being entirely objective. “If we refuse clients just because they’re trouble, we’ll go hungry,” I pointed out. Now wasn’t the time to go into that, however. “Tell you what,” I said to Santiago. “Lola Fanutti doesn’t have the painting right now. She’s the only one I know of who can get it. Just wait, let her get the painting back, then you can kill each other over it all you want. Just leave me out of it.”

“Mr. Lowell, even if I were to agree to such a thing, what makes you think the others would? Lola Fanutti still requires your services. Mr. Cello expects you to help him. There are others you have angered. None of them have the power that we do. Only we can offer you a way out of the predicament you find yourself in. Give us Lola Fanutti.”

“You think you’ll be able to get the painting out of her?”

“We can be quite persuasive.”

“In my professional judgement, you’re much better off waiting until after Sunday.” Alice elbowed me.

“That advice was free,” she said, “but any further consultation requires a retainer. Five thousand dollars.”

Santiago paused, then reached into his coat. He produced a gun and laid it in his lap, pointing directly at Alice. She froze, whatever she was going to say next trapped in her throat. It was, perhaps, the first time Alice had ever been without words. “I recommend,” Santiago said to me, “that you advise your partner to be a little more careful.”

More threats. I’d had enough of them. “I’m afraid I can’t comment,” I said, “until you are a client in good standing. My partner sets the rates. Put that gun away before the price goes up.”

Slowly Santiago put the gun away. “Ten thousand,” Alice said. Santiago shot me a look and I shrugged. Too late.

The car pulled to a stop in front of a nondescript brownstone. I watched as the occupants of the lead car got out and took up positions before we opened our doors. I got out and opened the umbrella while helping Alice up and out. I stood close to her as we crossed to the front steps.

I heard the shot even as the bullet punched me in the shoulder and spun me to the ground. Subsonic, I thought, but a good punch. Probably a .45. I lay on the ground and felt the rain on my face as my vision narrowed. People were moving around me; they seemed to be excited about something.

Lots of people use .45s.

Tune in next time for: Reunion by the River!

Getting Back in the Swing of Things

Upon arrival back home I dropped off my stuff and turned on the heat in my apartment, but tired as I was I wasn’t interested in huddling under blankets as the temperature slowly crept up to the livable range. I turned and headed back out.

My return to the Little Café was was not quite how I imagined it would be. I expected apathy, really, perhaps someone asking why I hadn’t been around in a couple of weeks (I had been rehearsing “I was in Ireland” in Czech — then as I approached I wished I had figured out “I just flew in from Ireland and boy are my arms tired!”) but then I expected to plug in my travel-depleted laptop and get some work done. I had just finished reading a pretty good book on the plane and that always turns my thoughts to my own words.

I walked in the place and a bunch of the younger regulars were there, taking up all the seats near the plug. I smiled and said hello to the ones I recognized, and one of the girls in the group, one I have perhaps spoken with once before, called out Džerý! (rhymes with Jerry!). She is a pretty girl, short especially by czech standards, with a quirky mouth. And young. She was having a little fun with me, but not in any mean-spirited way, and I played along with the histrionic greeting as well as I could without knowing her name.

More often than not, the kids are here now, smoking and drinking and still dizzy with life. I expect that to them I am a mildly comic figure, so serious as I sit alone, wrapped in words and (they suppose) Deep Thoughts. I am the gray cloud in the corner of their cheery little café. Of course they find me funny. I am occasionally a punch line, and some of them are starting to realize that I know when they are talking about me. They glance my way, confirming my suspicion, and we share a little half-smile, sharing a small joke of our own, even as the other wonders just how much I know.

As I left the same girl (who had paid me no notice when passing my table on the way to the bathroom), once again acted as group spokesperson and bid me grandiloquent if somewhat ponderous farewell. I responded in kind, tacked on a bit of extremely informal czech, and was on my way.

It was late when I got there, and when I left the place at closing time I was faced with going home to a still-cold apartment or rolling down the hill to find another place. I chose downhill, but I had no illusions of getting any more work done. I wound up at the Herna By The Station, enjoying Gambrinus with a couple of the regulars, talking (in English) about this and that. By the time I got home, it didn’t matter what temperature the apartment was, I was too tired to notice.

Eddie Rockets

If ever there were an antithesis of an Irish pub, this is it. Yet for reasons purely logistical here I sit, surrounded by chrome and red and white vinyl, brightly lit by halogens and fluorescents, listing to calculatedly cheery music. The tea has an odd taste to it; I may be forced to switch to Coca Cola (beer only served with a substantial meal, and it looks like the only beer is something modeled on American Swill Beer).

All right, Johnny Cash just came on, so there’s one redeeming facet of this place.