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Authors: William Stamp

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BOOK: The Merchants of Zion
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“You forgot to turn it on.” He said, plugging it back in.

“Sorry.”

“It's not a problem.”

“Why don't you ever make anything besides Mexican food?” I asked. “Like pirogis or borscht or something?”

He looked at me for the first time since I'd entered the kitchen. “It's nutritious, and there's a good Latino grocery down the street. If there were a good Russian grocery, I would make Russian food. Also, I make Asian food when I get out at the far entrance to the subway. There's a Thai market across the street that I like.” He returned to cooking.

“Do you want any help?”

“No thanks.”

He finished everything and made his burrito. I picked at the leftover pieces of chicken in the pan. When the coffee finished I poured a cup for him and myself.

“Do you think James will ever leave?” he asked, with a hint of contempt.

“I dunno. There doesn't seem to be anywhere for him to go. He's like a boat caught in a storm—either it'll pass or he'll find a way out.”

“Or sink.”

“It's possible.” I cracked a half dozen eggs into a bowl and began whisking them. There was a roll of sausage in the fridge, but I didn't know whether my mystery guest ate meat. Deciding to play it safe, I ripped open a bag of English muffins.

“You know he's never going to pay you back, right?” Dimitri said. He wiped a trickle of dark juice from his mouth.

“Say, do you mind if I grab a few of these peppers?”

“Go for it.”

“Thanks.”

I was no expert in the kitchen, but neither was I a slouch. And breakfasts were my specialty. Dimitri and I chatted about his research while I took my turn at the stove. A recruiter from the Pentagon had contacted him out of the blue and next week he had a meeting in Midtown with some military operative. The foundation was a bust; their largest donor had been indicted.

“That's heavy. Any idea what for?”

“Tax fraud. But really it's because of several articles he wrote last year criticizing the military for buying up all the best scientists and mathematicians and classifying their work. The opportunity cost to both pure and commercial research is enormous.” He said all of this as if he were talking about the weather, or what he'd had for dinner last night.

“And now they've bought you out.”

“Not yet. But it would appear his critique has some validity.”

I balanced the omelettes, coffee, English muffins, and a jar of strawberry jam on a tin tray I'd stolen from a Hudson dining hall when I was a sophomore. Before I left I added two glasses of orange juice from a carton James had bought as a mixer. Feeling like a proper host, I went to meet the young woman for the first time, again. I wished I'd put on a different shirt. As long as she'd been as tanked as me though, it would be manageable. If she hadn't... well, we could cross one bridge at a time.

When I opened the door to my room the blanket ruffled a little too quickly as she pretended to be asleep. She'd covered herself past the neck, hiding her tattoo.

“You up?” I set the tray on the nightstand. She peeked over her shoulder as if she'd just awoken. “I made some breakfast.” I blushed. These situations were awkward for all parties involved.

She sat up, the blanket wrapped around her body. I had lucked out last night—she was stunning. Her face was clean and smooth, with high cheekbones and a graceful nose adorned with a small diamond stud. She looked, I thought, like a French ballerina; I could imagine her dancing against a backdrop of snowy pine trees with branches sagging from the weight of ice. If she had one flaw it was that she erred on the youthful side, and looked like she was still in college. Or high school.

“Look, I'm not very good at this,” I said, rubbing my hands together nervously. “So I'll be honest. I'm afraid I don't remember much.” Her face was impassive and wary. She was trying to decide whether I was hustling her or merely being friendly. I stuck my hand out and forced my biggest, cheesiest smile.

She pinned the blanket across her chest with one hand and extended the other. The blanket fell half-way, exposing her side. She didn't reach to fix it, and I focused on her eyes (they were dark blue, almost indigo). “I'm Mary,” she said, taking my hand.

“And I'm Cliff. Pleased to meet you. I live here.” When I let go her hand fell across her lap. “Now the way I see it, we have two options. First I'll go outside so you can get dressed. If you want, I can call a car to come get you. Or, and I would prefer this, we can get to know each other over breakfast and a cup of coffee.”

“I'll think it over.”

“Just knock when you're done.” I said, and left the room.

After a few minutes she opened the door, holding an English muffin slathered with strawberry jam. She had on a black-and-white striped shirt and tight jeans with washed out thighs.

“I've decided I'm starving.”

We ate on my bed with the tray between us. The chit-chat started slow—mostly me telling her how cool I was—but by the time she'd finished her first muffin and slurped down the coffee she'd brightened up. She was in school—college, she clarified—and was working as a receptionist for an advertising office in Manhattan. I asked how she liked it. She liked it OK. When she went for a second muffin she spilled a dollop of strawberry jam on the blanket. She looked at me, horrified.

“I'm so sorry. Here, let me clean it up.” She looked around for a cloth, a towel—. I'd forgotten to bring up any napkins. We had a pile of them, accumulated over the years from delivery and takeout. They were worse than useless though, slippery as plastic and more likely to spread your mess than clean it up. Still, it would've been the thought that counted.

“Don't worry about it. The thing needs to be cleaned anyways. Or thrown out.” I tossed it off the bed. She smiled and, as if the blanket had been the reason for her initial shyness, opened up further. I wondered if the incident had been an accident, or a test of my temperament.

Mary's receptionist job was a summer thing, an effort to hold down the rising tide of student debt as best she could. She also interned, unpaid of course, with a graphic design company that she hoped would hire her once she graduated in December—a semester early. That didn't seem likely, however, even four years later the aftershocks of the Panic had not yet run their course, and she'd most likely have to choose between eking out a living as a part-time receptionist at multiple offices across the city while living in a closet and hoping something better fell out of the sky or, worse, moving back home until the job market picked up. Home, where was that? Home was LaSalle, Michigan—a rink-a-dink town whose most notable accomplishment was winning a state football championship in 1981. No daily commutes to Midtown there. She'd be back to her high school job serving pitchers of beer at the bowling alley. What about myself? Me, I was house-sitting for a friend and working as a personal tutor.

“Nice setup,” she said. Then she giggled and told me how bewildered she'd been this morning. She'd awoken when she heard me walking up the stairs and, not having time to get dressed or run away, had decided pretending to sleep was her best bet. She'd been prepared for the worst—for a date rapist, for a freak, for a skeezy middle-aged businessman.

“So are you a vegetarian or something,” she asked, gesturing at the tray. “No bacon or sausage? No ham in the omelettes?” She cut into hers and twirled a piece around on her fork.

“Yeah.” I said. I stammered. “Actually no, that was a lie. Sorry. I wanted to play it safe—in case, you know, you were.”

“Is your first instinct always to lie to a girl once you get her home?”

“Yes, minus the 'once you get her home'.”

“That probably makes the whole operation simpler.”

We both laughed. She relaxed, resting her elbows against the windowsill. We talked through breakfast and continued into the afternoon. Memories exploded like land mines as our conversation ventured deeper into the fenced off territory of the past. Her first kiss under a dock at summer camp, the pain I felt when my first girlfriend broke up with me because I was too boring. In middle school. We agreed that someone needed to build a monument where people could hang the collars of their childhood pets once they passed away—in honor of the thousands of selfless hours devoted to their fickle masters; who, incapable of appreciating true love, abandoned them in favor of the opposite sex and higher education, abandoning the poor dogs and cats to waste away in old age.

We tried to reconstruct the previous night, agreeing on a single rule: it had to sound respectable, absurdly so.

I started. “I serendipitously came into possession of a bit of legal tender and, not wanting to leave such a splendid opportunity by the by, hastily locomoted toward a favored watering hole so that I might in solitude imbibe a mug of mead. Forthwith, I found myself accosted by a coterie of older ladies, intimidating in posture and seemingly possessed of a sterling nature. I pledged myself to conquering the heart of at least one of these fine birds. Unbeknownst to me, however, their characters were merely silver plated, and these innocent damsels were in actuality nothing less than disguised harpies, abandoning me to rot in a vodka soaked prison upon the arrival of their ogrish retinue.”

I paused and she motioned for me to continue, chin cupped in her hands. “Then it becomes hazy. I vaguely remember drinking some more, alone, and spying the swell barista of a tea house I frequent. You were there with him, I've surmised, and he was none too pleased by our aggressive colloquy. Then there's a blank. Then me catching a car. Then I woke up next to you Mary, a precious treasure dropped in my lap. That leaves one knot untangled. How could a broken scalawag such as myself, dripping with pity and self-remorse, nab a princess? And what kind of companions would let you venture home a cad like me? And why were you in Brooklyn to begin with?”

She clapped her hands, laughing. “That was good, except for when you broke character. I don't know if I would call your description respectable—it was more like an epic, and I imagine it comes from a childhood spent reading too much fantasy.”

“You pierce my soul,” I said. It sounded flat to my ears, I bit my lip, waiting for her inevitable cringe, but it failed to materialize.

“Let me give it a try. I'll show you respectful.” She coughed into a closed fist and spoke in the feathery voice of a duchess in a 19
th 
century period piece.

“Upon recusing myself from daily labor, I found my soul stressed and in need of respite from the internecine gossip that pervades the quotidian life of an insulated, collegiate community. In high spirits, I left Manhattan for the quaint, truncated skyline of Brooklyn on a rather ordinary social call to the roommate of my freshman year. She cuts an impressive countercultural figure and, upon ascending the steps of her stoop, I naturally found myself apprehensive in manner and my bearing unnerved. One never feels quite 'cool' enough upon entering such a manor, no matter how congenial the host may be.

“Feeling underdressed next to her stylish red and black checkered shorts and gossamer tights, I humbly suggested that we might perchance enjoy a girl's night in. Sensing my discomfort, she assuaged my fears, assuring me the boys at the local establishments had nothing going for them besides over-sized egos accessorized with questionable hygiene and daft facial hair. Fortified by her sympathies—and a pre-outing bottle of wine—my misgivings receded, and we gaily proceeded to 'The Den,' the most pretentious libatory I have ever had the misfortune of gracing.

“My self-esteem tempered by an additional shot and Lisa's accurate description of the faux-leonine clientele, I enjoyed myself, unable though I was to shake my sympathy for the teddy bear mounted on the wall. If your barista was the same man I remember... was he wearing a striped t-shirt and suspenders, with an absurd French beret?” I nodded. “Yes, this fellow knew Lisa through a mutual acquaintance. He generously purchased for me several glasses of wine, which he insisted quite boisterously were from a geographic and temporal location most excellent, and which he'd had the good fortune to visit on his tour of France the previous summer.”

She was getting into her story, lifting her nose and hand in unison during her most cultured affectations. “Lisa excused herself to quarrel with her significant other via cellular phone. The hour was late, and I began to experience the gradual transition from intoxicated to wrecked, as Barista ensured my cup runneth over. Then, and I do believe this is the point where our two stories do converge, a fool wandered over and slapped my new companion on the back, dislodging from his hand his drinking vessel.

“At this point my memory breaks down, although if I recall correctly this court jester was barely capable of formulating a coherent sentence. Barista and the fool engaged in a heated disagreement, and I do believe the latter shoved the former into the bar, whereupon you were either forcibly ejected or departed voluntarily. I do not, however, remember leaving with the fool, though I must have. I recall walking—no car—back to someone's apartment, and I awoke dreading to find myself curled up next to Barista,” she finished, with an exaggerated shake of her head.

“So it would seem we were two drunk people fortunate to find one another at the end of a wonderful night.”

“Yes, except for the fight.”

“I had to establish my dominance of the pack.”

“Obviously.”

I offered her a cigarette. I didn't normally smoke in my room, but this was a special occasion and special occasions merit rule-breaking. She paused, and I thought she would say no, but took it between her thumb and forefinger. Her nails were painted a bright blue, in between the shade of the color of her eyes and the streaks in her hair.

We smoked in silence, the perfect picture of contentment. I hadn't felt this much at peace for a long, long time. New York is a lonely city, even in the best of times. And our world was anything but.

When she finished she leaned over on one arm and looked straight into my eyes. “I want to tell you something,” she said.

“What's that?”

“You have to promise not to laugh.”

BOOK: The Merchants of Zion
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