eBay is a dark cauldron, a black pit. At night after my miserable wife, and miserable children go to bed, while I’m contemplating stopping my drinking at the current glass or continuing on until I reach a certain morosity that will give me release tonight and reminders tomorrow, I turn on the computer and go to the auction house. I don’t usually buy unless I’m drunk enough to convince myself that owning this thing, this one thing will somehow shape my so far meaningless life. I have a whole collection of giant and grotesque chess sets that somehow seemed important to own at 2:30 in the morning. Symbols of my failed intellectual forays, I suppose, although I try not to think about them.
What I do think about is how all of these things owned by all of these people contributed to all of their lives, and how they are now randomly distributed to other people’s lives. I wonder these people feel about their lives and the things that share them. Perhaps these people know something about things that I don’t. Perhaps there is some material key here that will help me understand how I can go somewhere, or do something with my life. If I could explain this, perhaps I wouldn’t do it any more. Perhaps I‘d understand what these people know. My wife thinks I stay up downloading porn. I wonder if now she wishes I had.
It was one of those hot muggy nights that felt like you were breathing Karo.
Did I say eBay was a black pit? Rather it is a dark pool of dreams. I sift other’s wares, thinking about all of the threads I’ve picked up and discarded. Pinhole photography, always fascinated, never bothered; chess, a fascinated wood pusher with a dust encrusted computer and shelf of books. I type in a litany of keywords like the death scroll of broken dreams.
This night, I ended up in the art section. I even have a set of half-hardened oils and crusty brushes somewhere, waiting for the inspiration that will have me rushing up to dig them out, for once consumed to do something, and not forcing myself to some new futile attempt. I’ve always been inspired by Van Gogh, an aimless loser until finally his passion, his madness, gave him direction, success, genius. Inside I feel not that I’m untalented, but rather cannot choose from among my lukewarm passions. I’m inspired and jealous of monomaniacs. Think what I could do if only I focused on one thing!
So I half-heartedly typed in “van gogh” letting my thoughts wander until I mustered up the gumption to head upstairs. I was scrolling through the search results when a peculiar item caught my eye: Van Gogh’s Absinthe. As it was the most intriguing thing I’d seen all night, I clicked on it and waited for my arthritic connection to drag up the page.
The description read: An actual bottle of absinthe from the estate of Vincent Van Gogh. Provenance. $1200. There was a picture of a dusty bottle, two glasses and what looked like a slotted teaspoon.
I pondered this cryptic offering for a while. Surely, such a bottle would be worth millions and would be offered at Christie’s or Southeby’s for a fortune. Stranger still, the auction duration was only one hour, and not a single bid had been tendered. I admit it, I was a little drunk. There is no way this could be right. I could just see the splash I’d make on The Antiques Road Show next year in Portland. It’s become my habit more and more of late to open a bottle of wine with dinner, and polish it off over the course of the evening. How many dreams, I wonder, have I lost from that?
The preposterousness of the idea struck me, and I’ve shamelessly dropped that much many times over on some hot stock tip before the bubble burst. A little rush came up inside my chest and I knew then I would bid on this impossible piece. I felt more alive than I had in months.
I reread the description once more and looked at the time. Five minutes left. I knew from painful past experience not to bid until the very last moment. I spent an agonizing four minutes searching for Bonestells I’d always meant to collect, and then typed my bid of $1202. I watched the clock agonizingly count down to thirty seconds and entered it, the risk now equally split between digital vagaries, another cagey bidder, and fraud.
Seconds later, I got the confirmation – I’d won. Buyer’s remorse instantly set in. I imagined that somehow, every how, I must have paid a huge sum for a piece of trash. There was no way this could be an actual artifact, and if not, it must be useless. Perhaps poisonous, even. Indignity overcame shame. Well, eBay had rules about fraud! It would take some effort, but I was sure it could be undone, dear god, before Janice found out and sunk her teeth into it.
I resolved to go to bed and confront the results of my folly in the morning.
The next day, I awoke late, and not a little under the weather. Janice was packing the kids off to school with somewhat more than the usual pandemonium, and hadn’t even bothered to wake me. I went into the bath sure that she’d done it on purpose in some spiteful measure for my shortcomings. I spent the whole shower considering numerous pithy and painful retorts to any possible tack that she might take, and was only further incensed to find that she’d left the house without giving me a chance to exercise my arsenal.
This and typical frustrations consumed my thoughts until I reached the office and I managed to completely disregard my late night folly until I opened my email. Whatever the rising emotion was that I felt as I bid, it felt much worse as it returned from whence it had gone. I’d gone up the bidding roller coaster, the felt the gorge rise as I plunged off the track.
I considered ignoring it completely, but I steeled my nerve and clicked on the email: Response to Bidder. There was all of the seller’s information: email, phone, fax, PayPal, address, all nicely formatted in one of those fancy signature blocks. I looked at the address and sat stunned for a moment. I’d automatically assumed that such a piece could only come from a European address, but the seller was right over the bridge, in Maine. This put a different light on things. I could resolve this personally, over lunch.
I ploughed into my accounts almost cheerfully, shifting my fantasy conversational adversary from Janice to this new foe. I admit, I felt a great deal of relief, but also curiosity. I reminded myself not to come off too defensive, or worse, offensive. I would look at this item and hear the seller out. Perhaps it was a complete misunderstanding. The morning flew by, and at twelve o’clock sharp, I left for the meeting.
The coastal towns of New England confound me, and I grew up here. These labyrinths, the result of houses piled on top of one another for the last 400 years t would give an Amsterdam acid freak pause. They seem to shift and change with the tides, all the time belying the fact with their judgmental stolidity and granite foundations. Of course I’d been down this street many times, and of course I’d never seen the little shop tucked into the cottage set back just between two ancient mariners. On such streets the houses nestle even the sidewalks, and parking can be its own excursion. I found a wide spot around the corner under an aged oak and walked briskly to the shop, all too aware of my passing lunch hour.
“Overlooked Antiquities” the door said, and had one of those twinkly little bells when I opened it. Sitting there was a dapper fellow, somehow exuding a European air in a white mandarin-collared shirt, red plaid vest, a perfectly trimmed white Van Dyke and matching hair. I realized he looked exactly as I imagined him.
“Ah, Mr. Marsh, here about the absinthe, I hope?” As he stood and extended his hand I saw suspenders went beneath his vest. I shook and looked around. The room was nearly barren, frankly, with just the odd sea chest, and a few books on the shelves.
“Messieur Dupont, proprietor.” His gaze followed mine around the room. “It appears a trifle light, I’m afraid, but you must understand the nature of my work.” He waved me to a seat and sat himself. “I do not truck in your typical wares, Mr. Marsh, most of my time is spent abroad, sifting through forgotten historical minutiae to bring back items just such as you have bid on. The everyday riff raff of the famous, or otherwise historically interesting pieces.”
“Well, that sounds fascinating, but it would seem that such important finds as this one purports to be,” here I looked directly at him and arched an eyebrow as if to say the matter was still under dispute, “would command a much higher price.”
“Oui, certainment,” he lapsed into, I supposed, his native language. “Sometimes, for a piece so special, I feel, je ne sais quois, that it is more important that it find its own home. It is a weakness, a foible if you will, of mine. But I can afford such foibles and do this mainly as a way to pass the time.”
I looked at him, now with both eyebrows raised in frank confusion, if not disbelief. “This piece, it called to you, late at night when nobody else was interested. The price, it was high enough to keep out the disinterested, but low enough that you acted on your impulse. I’m sure for the price you will not be disappointed.”
“Well, sir,” I replied, “that sounds either highly plausible, or the perfect pitch for a small con.”
“Absolutement,” he chuckled. “Why don’t we repair to the merchandise and let it speak for itself?” With that he turned to an elaborate cabinet, vaguely oriental, behind his desk and pulled forth a bottle. It was very plain, squattish at the bottom ribbed in concentric circles, tapering to a long plain neck. With it were the two glasses, like miniature globular wine cups on pyramidal hollow bases. The glasses once had gold rims, now flecked from age, and the slotted spoon with them was somewhat tarnished. They all set on a silver tray, also somewhat tarnished.
“In Arles, the town where Van Gogh painted his Café Terrace at Night, he drank at the same bar every night.” He lifted a small note attached to the neck of the bottle. It was a piece of paper folded in half, like the note that comes with flowers. Browned and brittle looking with age, on the front it read in somewhat hurried scrawl “Prendes pour M. V. Gogh.” Inside, it said “Pour les soir plus longue, Theo’.
“As you can see, given to Vincent by his brother, and kept for him at the bar, which by the way is where I found it, in the basement, covered with dust.”
I looked askance at him, and he held up a hand waiving off the unspoken question. “We forget, how close history is behind us. The Austro-German Alliance that would lead to the first Great War was already ten years old when this was painted. In the tides of turmoil and peace, bits of flotsam wash up into strange and diverse corners.”
He picked up the spoon and placed it over a glass. “You would pour the absinthe, put a sugar cube on the spoon, like this, and then pour ice water through it, like so.” Of course,” he looked me in the eye, “we are not so crazy as to drink absinthe now, non? And not such a special bottle, at any rate.”
“Well the note is a nice touch, but still not quite provenance, is it?” Somehow, my eyes were drawn to the bottle.
“Of course, Mr. Marsh, I wouldn’t expect you to take that story at face value, no not at all. And that’s not how we do business here, not at all.” He pulled out a dossier. “First, we used three of the best experts in Europe to verify the handwriting against known samples of Vincent’s brother Theo’s work.” He handed me several new, expensive sheets of paper, complete with seals and signatures, all in French. Then before I could speak, handed me the translations. “Of course, that speaks only for the note,” he continued. “Not that that wouldn’t be worth the price alone! But we never stop with just one source.” He gazed at me intently. “Can we be honest, Mr. Marsh?” Before I could counter that ludicrous question, he went on again. His style seemed to always have me off balance. “I think I can trust you, if I cannot, well perhaps I am due the consequences, non? And of course, I will let you out of our deal.”
The conversation confused me. What did this have to do with provenance? It was just a little too far afield, and I was almost happy to have a reason to back out of the deal. “Continue.” I said in my most businesslike manner.
“Well, we certainly wanted to verify the find, but our means were limited. Did you know that very few of Van Gogh’s artifacts remain? Almost none in the public sector. Ideally, we would like to get DNA from one of those glasses, that spoon or tray, and compare it to some of the artist’s. This, you agree would be perfect and the most modern, airtight solution possible, non?”
“Yes, that would certainly satisfy me, once the reports were verified.”
“Mais oui, you can see our dilemma, can you not? Something we are sure is Van Gogh’s but to prove it we must find some other thing of his, which is not to be found.” He looked at me for some sign and I waved him on, mindful of the time. “Well, there is one thing. One very small thing, but this also, no one knows about. For it came out of his grave–his ear. His other ear. I happen to have a somewhat ghastly acquaintance who dug it up on an unrelated matter.”
“Preposterous!” I was finally out of his trance and ready to leave. “How are you to prove that the ear is his? You are building me a very elaborate house of cards, monsieur.” I added with a touch of disdain.
“Yes, yes it is a reach, I’m sure, but analysis of blood in the ear gives a breakdown of the very toxins found in that bottle. Each brand, in fact each batch, had a very unique profile. Not only was this his bottle, it is the bottle he was drinking out of when he,” and here he made a snipping motion beside his head. “It is a bit circular, I’m sure, but you can check the authenticity of all of the data and make up your own mind. Bear in mind, it is reflected in the price. Isn’t it perfect, the thing that made him mad, verified by his most famous act of lunacy?”
Perfect indeed, I thought. A bit too perfect. I took the data and agreed to get back to him by the first of next week, thinking of course to do no such thing. However, I have a friend, a bit more motivated, a bit more prosperous, a bit more connected, whom I thought of as I crossed the Memorial Bridge. We went to school together, but he went on to get his bio chem degree at Johns Hopkins, and later a law degree at BU. Now he worked at Mass General in Boston, one of those forensics guys. I thought that I could have him check it out and maybe catch a bad guy. At least I’d get a good story out of it.
When I got to the office, I called to tell him the story. It hooked him like a striper on mackerel and I FedExed him the data. At the very least, he agreed, he could validate the names of the labs and the authors and check the paperwork for forgery. That was Tuesday. Friday night, I got an interesting phone call. My friend Al is one of those suckers for a puzzle. He’d been working around the clock, contacting people in Europe and running tests of his own.
“You’ve got something here,” he said over the phone. “Not that I believe this cockamammy story, but everything checks out. It seems pretty elaborate for a con, but still just too whacky to be real.”
“Everything checks out?” I couldn’t get over it.
“Yes, I called all of the labs and talked to the experts. None of them had the whole story, of course, some worked the notes, some the ear, some the absinthe, but all of them vouched for their work. None of the reports is falsified. The lab fees alone must be fifty times the asking price on that bottle.”
“What do you suppose the scam could possibly be?” I asked.
“That’s what’s puzzling me. I’ve been wracking my brains over it, and nothing.”
“So, do you think I should get it?”
“Hell, if you don’t I will!” Al laughed. “I’m dying to get my hands on this bottle.”
I thanked him and told him I had to think about it, but that I’d let him know my decision. I picked up my coat and headed into the other room. “Honey, I’m going for a drive.”
She looked up from the television. “At this hour? Out of wine or something?”
Ever supportful. I would’ve replied, but her attention was already back on a Frasier rerun. How many of those do you need to see in a lifetime? I meant to just drive around, away from the distractions of the house, but somehow I found myself over the bridge in Maine. Wouldn’t you know it, M. Dupont sat there in his damn shop, as if he’d been waiting for me.
He opened the door when I rapped. “Ah, monsieur, so fast? I didn’t expect you until Monday.” For some reason, I almost called him a liar.
“I’ve decided to take it. Still not sure about the whole provenance thing, but the novelty of it and all, almost makes it worthwhile. Might just put it back on eBay.”
“Non! You cannot do that! Promise me! The ear, I would be ruined.” He looked quite scared. But just past him I saw the bottle. It mesmerized me. My wife was right–I probably was a little drunk. Suddenly I felt the same fever I had at auction. I would promise him anything, but I must have that bottle tonight. After that, I owned the bottle and the data, and to hell with him.
“Well, of course, I mean if those are the conditions of sale, but what if I ever want to sell it?”
“Monsieur, keep it for one week, if you decide to sell it, I will make you an offer on it, if that does not suit you, you are free to dispose of it as you want.”
We shook. He took Visa. By midnight, I was home with my nebulous elixir. Of course I was going to send it to Al. What little I knew of the stuff was that it was incredibly addictive and intoxicating, causing many to go mad.
It was probably 160 proof, maybe more due to the angels’ share lost over the years. The French called it “La Fée Verte,” or The Green Fairy. The color came from wormwood and other herbs, since lost to history, although one, thujone, is known as a toxic convulsant. It seems that every French writer was addicted to it, and in fact there was a subset of alcoholism known as absinthism. This was marked by suicidal madness. By the 20’s it was outlawed in the West, although supposedly you can find it in some Eastern European countries. As M. Dupont pantomimed, the absinthe was poured in the glass, then a cube of sugar put in the spoon. Finally ice water was drizzled over the sugar to give a 3:1 or 4:1 final mixture. The sugar takes the bitterness out and the water turns the whole mixture a greenish milky-white, an effect called “louche.” The color, flavor, louche and other aspects were all effected in cheaper brands through the disreputable addition of chemicals. These in turn may have contributed significantly to the drink’s toxic reputation.
You can learn a lot from the Internet, when you don’t spend all of your time on eBay.
I looked at the bottle and thought about what the old man had said, about it calling to me. I admit, it was past my bedtime, and perhaps my tolerance for alcohol, but I was intrigued. Staring into that liquid was like staring into some glacial pool whose bottom has not been seen since the last ice age. I could believe that sage faerie kingdoms lived deep in that bottle, in some realm that transcending the bottle’s mere dimensions. From my dark pool of dreams, perhaps I had fished a bright emerald fantasy. It did call to me; I put my hand on the bottle and felt it throb like an anti-freeze-pumping heart.
Perhaps I have conveyed that I am not a man of strong fiber, moral or otherwise. It is not as if I do not have good intentions, that I don’t understand that certain actions have deleterious results. But I am powerless in the hold of certain ideas. Powerless to do right. Powerless to progress.
So it was that I found myself going to the kitchen for sugar, and one of my wife’s bottled waters. I never understood that, buying water. Like some guy wasn’t standing downtown filling the damn things with a hose from the same water supply you had at home. Secretly, I felt the plastic from the bottles was probably our generation’s absinthe, silent PCB’s filling soccer mom’s mammaries, or whatever they used instead these days, going directly to junior’s little brain, there to turn into ADD, later fueled by Ritalin, causing obesity, depression, and likely, a slew of at-work murders. While I’m at it, perhaps my own problems were rooted in my mother’s fine aluminum pot collection.
These things will go through your mind when you’ve been staring into the unfathomable, contemplating the unthinkable at two in the morning. So it was that I carefully followed the ritual as so many before me had. First I wiped M. Van Gogh’s glass with a clean napkin. Then, I carefully poured one ounce of the precious jade into it. Think of it! The antiquity, the expense, the wanton foolishness of the act. Surely not enough to feel the effects, but far too much to put back into the bottle. I was shaking a bit as I put the sugar on the spoon, balancing it with an amateurish fright. Not into the liquid accidentally! Don’t ruin the ritual. Then all was ready, and I poured the water with an unsteady hand, putting my head on the table so I could watch the fouche develop. Splendid alchemy, I felt as if all time were pouring backward through that glass, forming a window into a forgotten world.
I removed the spoon and sniffed the aromatic mixture as I imagined many addicts before. I held up the glass and offered the silent shadows around me a toast. What would those damn French say? I’d had eight years of French in Portsmouth’s public schools; the least I could do is remember a toast. “Sante.” I could not remember if it was sipped like brandy, or shot like sake. For the experience, I decided to sip it. My mouth immediately went numb, and I got a sensation unlike any before from alcohol, as if my brain were lifted out of a hatch in the top of my head to soar on its own. I distinctly remember seeing myself from across the room. My heart beat erratically and my vision began to darken from around the edges.
The girl ran into my arms with a tremendous force, knocking us both on my arse. Her green eyes went wide with shock, and I had an incongruous moment when I thought how beautiful they were. She began thundering on my chest with little clenched fists. “Hey! Cut that out, I’m sorry!” I grabbed for her wrists but she leaped up, seemingly unencumbered by her long skirts. I also got up quickly and turned to her, as she poised to sprint away.
“Well, trying to drag up a little last minute business?” She froze, a hand to her mouth and I turned only my head to look behind me. There stood two young street thugs in what looked to be period clothing: rough wool pants, leather boots, both had suspenders, one had a little cap somewhat reminiscent of the bed clothes in “The Night Before Christmas,” complete with tassel. He stood with arms crossed and seemed to be the speaker.
“You can pay her fee directly to us, and then be about your business.” He smirked, perhaps leered, at the young girl. “Two more before midnight, and you’ll be even up for the week.”
I looked at her, surprised that somehow I actually did have hold of her wrist. She tried to hide behind me. I was confused, baffled. The last I knew I was at my table, with the absinthe. Perhaps this was some hallucination or dream, but it seemed somehow more real than my daily life. My hands were scratched and I was sure my coccyx was sorely bruised, if not broken. I’d barely had time to take in my surroundings, but they seemed ancient from the half-timbered houses to the cobblestone streets. Even Portsmouth didn’t have those anymore. I could see no sky, but had the feeling that I was in a large set inside a building, or even for some weird reason, underground. Instinctively I knew that the twilight we were in was going to neither lighten nor dim, but remain a perpetual half-light.
I’m no hero. Not even in fantasies. Yet the girl was so beautiful, so stricken, and the two youths seemed mere mongrels to me, hardly worth kicking. I stood easily a foot taller than the tallest and had at least 75 pounds on him, some of that was even bone and muscle.
“Are you implying that I’m some kind of John? I’ve only just met this woman. However, I can see she wants no business with you, and will ask you to leave at once.” A bit stiff perhaps, but I was out of my element. I was out of any element I’d even heard of. I was off the freaking periodic scale of my experience.
“Good sir, she belongs to us. If you are not paying to so roughly treat her, I must ask that you let us conclude our business.” Now he turned his smile on me, and it showed little fear.
“Belongs to you?” The concept was so foreign; the question came instantly to my lips. That and the fact that despite her youth, she was certainly a year or two older than the boys. I looked back at her, she had the sturdiness of a serving girl, but nothing could hide her beauty. “What is this all about?”
“They say I am a prostitute, but I am not! They make me pay them as if they were my pimps, taking money even if I do not lie with men.” She took a step around me and actually spat at the boy in front, an instigation that did not exactly endear her to me. “I will not whore for you or any man!”
“She is a lying slut. Of course she is a whore. We are merely collecting our due for services rendered. And you,” he slitted his eyes at me, “have now taken enough of her time that you owe us, whether you lie with her or not.” The other boy moved to flank me and I noticed a mean looking cudgel in his hands. My spontaneous confidence was quickly fleeing. I tried backing the girl into a wall to at least prevent them from surrounding me. I looked around for a weapon, but she kept taunting them over my shoulder.
“Such a man, without even hair on his sack, you would’ve been better off kissing your boyfriend than coming after me!” I risked a glance at her, and the first one jumped me. I turned back to him, my full weight behind the fist I swung in shear terror. I’m here to tell you that size does matter, especially when its 220 pounds against a 135 pound youth. He went down like the closing curtain. It was sheer luck that bowled him into his friend who dropped his cudgel to break the fall. I was on the club like green on absinthe. Standing over them, I felt a sudden bravery I hadn’t before. They scuttled away like crabs, not even standing until they were almost at the corner.
“That was close, too close. What the hell is your problem?” I turned to the girl. “We got totally lucky there. I’ve never been in a fight in my life.”
She gave me a strange look, but recovered almost instantly. “Those were just the whelps. They’ll be back with the rest of the curs. We must leave.” At least she didn’t just cut and run, I thought as she hiked her skirts and took off the other way down the street. I followed her more for answers than any other reason. I still had no idea where I was or how I came to be there. She turned a corner and I rushed to catch up. All of the buildings seemed the same dull gray, grime-streaked, empty, lifeless. Like when you ring a doorbell, and know instinctively whether or not somebody is home. Now we were on what looked to be a major thoroughfare, although no more lively. Up ahead I spotted a café, voices and lights spilling into the street. Something about the scene looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. I could see heads turning as the girl sped on. Suddenly, my legs felt weak and I couldn’t run. I’d felt this often before in dreams, a need to run, but so tired, I couldn’t move, things began to go dark for the second time tonight, and the last thing I remember was the cobblestones rushing up to meet me.
I woke up sprawled at the kitchen table. I didn’t feel hung over, so much as aged. I can’t really describe it. It was like the feeling you get after a loved one dies. You know you’ll get over it, but you also know that you will never be the same. I sat up, the images so vivid and real in my mind that I was actually more surprised to see my familiar surroundings than to not be in that alien street. Home seemed somehow to have become surreal, and in my short time in that other world, it had become so much more visceral. The scenes and images flooded my mind, almost as if they were overlaid on what my eyes now saw.
This absinthe, I was beginning to think, is some mean shit. No wonder people got hooked on it. I shook my head to clear my vision, and noticed that my hand was very sore. I looked down to see it, slightly swollen, and bruising around the knuckle. There was a bit of torn skin, as if I had hooked a tooth? Everything else I could put to the absinthe as producing a very vivid, almost hallucinatory image. Maybe I had struck the table or there was some other plausible explanation.
The clock struck three, the Venus hour between sleep and wakefulness when I had always felt most creative. Get up and follow my passions, or try to get some quality sleep? Rarely before had the passion won. My body was exhausted, no doubt I had been in some kind of trauma, but my mind, my mind never felt like this. There was an intensity, a passion, I’d never felt before. I needed to record this. I got up, rather unsteady, from the table, and quietly as possible headed out to the garage to find my old oil painting set.
That’s where my wife found me hours later. I’d already finished one canvas, but my mind was on fire to create more. Those streets, those houses; so mundane, and yet so sinister. As sinuous and crowded, as rundown as cancerous alveoli. Yet they riveted me, and my paintings, while not extremely realistic, somehow captured the feel of all of this.
“Paul, what has gotten into you? Look at you, still in your good work clothes, covered in paint. They are ruined. Did you even go to bed? Are you listening to me?”
I looked over at her. Frumpy in her bathrobe and comfortable slippers. She was beautiful. Actually more beautiful than when we’d first met all those years ago in college.
“Isn’t it great, honey? I had these dreams, and when I woke up, I could still see the images, so I just wanted to see if I could capture them.”
She looked critically at my work. “Dreams, or nightmares?” She shuddered. “If you’re going to stay up all night I’d think you’d want to think about happier things. You realize that you’re late for work, I’d assumed you already left.”
Crap! Work, I was supposed to work this weekend. I’d forgotten all about it. “Call in sick for me, will you?” I said, adding just a few final touches and picking up another canvas.
She was right about the gloominess of my subject matter, but the images came to me in the order that I saw them. Next I painted the girl. Her look of horror captured perfectly. And other things I hadn’t noticed at the time. Loss. She looked like she suffered terrible loss, and even the dire circumstances under which we met did not pierce that veil. And beauty. So beautiful, yet it was drawn so thin about her, like the threadbare dress she wore. All of these things poured out of me. Memories I had but never really knew until I saw them in wet oils.
Then I painted the fight. In just a few tense lines I captured it all: the animosity, the fear, the aggressors and defenders. Heroism. I never recognized it in myself, but there it was in the paint. The paint, I found, did not lie. It was the mirror I had always looked for. What I was painting was truth, beautiful and ugly, terrifying and uplifting, my brush did not discern. It painted and painted: using my hand only to refill it from the palette, my eyes only to perceive the tales that it told. I was delirious.
Next another street scene, and then the café. Through all of this, my wife would try to interrupt me, talk to me, but I was a man possessed. My hand did not accept reason. My wife could not accept passion. Eventually, she left me alone. Finally exhausted, spent, and out of materials, I slept. This was Sunday. I awoke Monday night. Janice was genuinely concerned. She’d called in sick for me again, and thought I should see a doctor. Al had called about some forensics tests. What was going on?
I leapt out of bed, in clothes I’d been wearing for what, four days now? I mumbled a few assurances to Janice and then grabbed my keys and bolted for downtown. There was still time to get new supplies before the stores closed. I shopped, I’m afraid, like a mad man. I clutched tubes of oils, brushes, new canvases stretched tight as a funeral drum. I picked up turpentine and linseed oil, all the time seeing exactly how each one would be used. I mumbled, I stank, I ran through the store. I put it on Visa and drove through Portsmouth’s rain-slick streets like Paul Revere in a Subaru. I didn’t even go into the house but backed the car into the garage and opened the hatch. I began working right out of it.
The café was still on the easel and I looked at it before I replaced it with a fresh canvas. Now I recognized it. It was the same as Van Gogh’s café at night. Talk about provenance! I needed no further proof. I was stunned legless and sat heavily in the back of the car. Not only was I sure now that I had drunk from Vincent’s very bottle, his very glass, but I also knew his secret. Like me, Vincent went to this secret place, and this is where his talent came from. We were both mediums for some dark muse.
The city in my dream no longer held my interest. Instead, I wondered, could I apply this talent to objects not in my dream. I looked about, found an old Vase, a wine bottle, some silk flowers. Quickly, I had an impromptu still life, and I labored over it. A little while later I stepped back from the easel. Yes, there was power there. Interesting strokes of purple and green that should’ve leapt garrulous off the canvas were, in fact, the perfect elements. This talent went beyond then merely what I had experienced. My new eyes also saw the rest of the world, my world, as well.
I took a few more days off of work, but my mania began to subside. Yes, I rushed home every night anxious, needing, to produce new work. My wife even began to see it as positive, or at least less negative than previous pursuits. Part of this, I’m sure was that I suddenly found her irresistible again. After painting, I would come to bed late at night still smelling of turpentine and wake her. We made quiet, tender, sleepy love and dozed until dawn. The absinthe now sat quietly on the mantle of my study, but I still didn’t return any of Al’s calls.
One day while I was at work, a friend of Janice came over for coffee. Janice brought up my “obsession” as she called it. It turns out her friend knew a little bit about such things, owning one of those galleries on Market street, and wanted to see my work. I don’t know what motivated Janice, secret pride, or a secret chance to shame me out of my new hobby. But she and Pam went into the garage. It turns out, I’m quite the talented guy. By the time I got home I had an agent.
At first I was furious. Perhaps I also had a little secret shame. This was art, not business. I was the great recorder. Why I did it, I still didn’t understand, there was some need in me, but I didn’t want that need to be producing work for other people. Still, the garage was getting pretty full. Finally, we shook on it, as long as I produced “happy” pieces and none of that “gothic” crap (“You know I could probably sell that in New York, but here people want bright art to remind them of that wonderful vacation they took at the seacoast.”), then we had a deal. I said I’d try, but that what came, came, and we parted, both a little tenuous.
Janice was genuinely proud of me. She sent the kids off to the movies. We ate steak and had two bottles of wine. We made love in the garage–her idea. For the first night since I’d had my little drink, I didn’t paint.
For most men, this would be the end of the story. Middle-aged man seeking avocation finds passion and success, not to mention a hell of a tale, could he ever find the appropriate audience. Perhaps around a low fire on a camp out somewhere close to the earth where big tales are told and taken as they lie. But not me. No, not me.
I don’t think it was selling the paintings that was the problem, although now I couldn’t really just let the hobby fade away. Especially after I won a few juried shows, and dammit, did sell my “gothics” in New York. We even began talking about my quitting my day job. No, the problem was that the vision was beginning to fade. Nobody else really knew it, but I could see that my old works, those first works, were the best. The rest were, well, I’d picked up a little technique along the way, but technique only covers for passion so far. Frankly, I began to hate what I produced, and I knew it wasn’t selling so well to boot.
Which is worse, to aspire to talent that you’ll never have or to touch it, taste it, and have it plucked off of your very tongue? You will have to answer that for yourself, the many of you with perfectly adequate lives who do not lay tortured at night feeling that there is more for you crawling along in the dark of the Venus hour, ever barely out of sight, out of touch. But for me the sheets are a twisted trap as I swim in them night after tortuous night. I know that answer for myself and a taste is not enough. I want to bite greatness. I want to swallow large throbbing chunks of its tender flesh and make it part of me. I hunted my dreams in the forests of eBay, rutted with their spawn, and now wanted to mount them on the walls of my life. If this strikes you as hyperbole, go to bed, go to bed now, you lucky deep sleepers and shallow dreamers.
I think you know what I did. I envy you if you would’ve done other wise. One night, long after the house was asleep, I put down my brush, still clogged with paint, and walked into my study. Once I spent long hours in here, now the computer was dusty from disuse. I realized that the decision for what I was about to do had been made long ago, perhaps when that first brush stroke went awry. I walked directly over to the mantle and poured myself a shot of the absinthe, twice as much as I’d had the first night. No sugar, no water, no louche, and no sipping this time either, I tilted my head back and downed it in a swallow.
I thought I was ready for it, but it hit me like a Nor’easter, and its dark undertow soon swallowed my vision. I just had thought to brace against the mantle lest I crack my head on it, before I tumbled to the hearth.
I awoke in that same damn twilight, lying on the cobblestones in that sepulchral back lot set. I was frightened, damn scared. But less frightened than I had been before, standing in front of my tastelessly smeared canvas. I also felt a sudden rush of energy and a tremendous clarity as I lifted myself to my feet. At first I thought I was alone, but as I turned to get my bearings, there was my girl, the same beautiful waif. Only now she was attired more in line with her supposed profession, a veritable cliché standing in a small circle of light beneath a gibbous street lamp. She looked at me in total dismay, her mouth a narrow oval of shock.
“Monsieur!” She looked both ways, although somehow I was sure traffic was not her concern, and dashed off of the curb to support me. “We must get you out of here, immediately. Les hommes de main, they search for you.”
Up close I could see her face and arms contained old bruises, now almost gone, but still showing through her make up the sickly purplish yellow that only old, deep bruises aspire too. In my artist’s eye, they had their own innate beauty, not detracting from hers at all, but somehow giving it a depth, as if I’d known her for years. Of course, these are things you feel – later trying to put this certain knowledge into words, it never works does it? Only the brush can capture them.
Again she looked around, as if trying to make a decision. “Come.” She grabbed my hand and sped me down a main street. Presently, we came to a little shop, the only besides the café I’d seen so far appeared occupied. A dim light showed through a dusty window reading Obermeyers Books. With a last furtive glance, she dashed through the door, its bells jangling above my head. She hardly broke stride as she dragged me, first through a series of tables overloaded with precariously stacked books, and then into a seemingly infinite row of shelves. “Herr Obermeyer!” she brayed, cutting a zigzag course down the aisles that faded into the distance until one could no longer even see the pools from the intermittent lights. Just as I began to protest, we came around a corner and almost ran down a man in his mid to late years, gone mostly bald with a graying laurel crown and bifocals shoved down on the end of his nose. He looked up quite calmly from the tome he held open in his hands.
“Ah, the timewalking stranger. I’ve been expecting you.” I was completely taken by surprise. “Come, let’s sit and talk.” He motioned back the way we had come. “Allegne, how about a nice pot of tea?” So that was her name, despite our time together, I hadn’t yet had a chance to ask. Our host seemed unperturbed as we walked back to the tables in the front of the store, but inside me, time thundered with the unrestrained clamor of a wagon of church bells pulled by wild horses. He stopped at the corner of the first table and offered me a chair. We sat kitty corner to one another, and he took off his glasses to polish them.
“I am Fritz Obermeyer, owner of this establishment. I know of you, but I do not know your name.”
“I am Paul Marsh.” He did not offer his hand, so I did not offer mine. Instead he gave me a slight nod of the head, almost a bow, and smiled at me. Something about him seemed familiar, but I could not place it. “I’m sure you have many questions. Do you know where you are?”
I shook my head. “I’m not really sure, for some reason, I want to say late 19th century France, but I couldn’t tell you why.” He replaced his glasses and actually laughed. “Do you hear that, ma cher, France!” Allegne had just come out of the gloom holding a tray with tea service. She balanced it nonchalantly on stack of moldering texts and served us, giving us all sugar and cream without asking.
“No, not France. Perhaps some shadow of France, in about the time you speak. But first, I am curious. When, and where, are you from?”
“The United States, 2003.”
“Ahh,” he said as if that explained a lot, followed by a pensive “hmm,” as if it brought up a whole new set of questions. “Well, well, how can I explain? Paul, you are not in France, exactly, you are in the underworld. An underworld made up of bits and pieces of Paris, and London, New York, Berlin, New Orleans. A bit of every place that existed during the time you bespoke. The people here, are people who, shall we say, could’ve behaved better in their lives. We live again, in a manner, while we are judged. If we have learned, we progress; if not…” he shrugged.
Frankly, I thought I was ready for anything. Obviously, I knew the place to be supernatural, no other explanation would do, but perhaps to have it laid out so plainly put the edge of disbelief to it. Perhaps it was the theological slant, which I’d never considered, that threw me. Like my explanation, his proffered as many questions as it answered.
“It seems fairly sparsely populated for such a place.”
“Ah, so it must seem. I have long thought on this, and in my,” he seemed to search for the appropriate word, “position, I see perhaps more of the population than the average resident. I think that we see here only those necessary to tilt our destiny–one way or the other. N’est-ce pas?” He looked steadily at me. “But you, why are you here? You should not be here. When Allegne told me about you, I couldn’t explain it, I thought perhaps she was overwrought.” He looked apologetically at her. “People do not pop in and out of here. Once, perhaps I could see, there are after all strange forces at work in the world. But to escape and return, well, it has been a long time since we’ve had one of those.” This time he gave Allegne a more meaningful look. “And never someone from the future. How exactly do you accomplish this?’
As I took a sip of tea, alarm bells were going off in my brain, I was not quite ready to divulge everything. “Perhaps if I understood the nature of this place, I could explain it better. What exactly gains you a sentence here, if I may use that term?”
“Sentence is as a good a word as any.” He pursed his lips, as if making a decision. “People come here at the age they died above.” He gestured upward with his teacup. “We are all here because given the choice between being good, and not being good, we took the low road.” Allegne looked away in shame.
I looked directly at him. “And you, what was your crime?” He let out a deep sigh, but he almost seemed relieved.
“In my profession, I came to know many things. Many times, I gave people information that helped them end up here, when I could’ve just as well used my knowledge for deterrence. Mark this, Herr Marsh, we are all here weak and dishonest. Every one of us wants to leave, yet few of us have learned anything at all.” He looked at Allegne, as if intoning the warning for us both. “That is our true Hell; we repeat our mistakes, remaining trapped in our own guilt and shame. What crime do you hide?”
I ignored that, for the moment. “You say others have come and gone?”
“Yes, as I’m sure you have experienced, being here, it changes you above. For a while, nien?” He looked very knowingly at me. “Let me just say, that in my capacity above, I helped a few people make the journey. This was one of my crimes, though God knows, not the only one.” He looked at me. “You have been very evasive. I wonder, did you perhaps stumble upon one of my physics?” My face must’ve given me away. “Ah the mystery is solved. It had to be one of mine, that is what called you to this time and not your own. Perhaps the doors are all shut in your time, many had they shut even while I lived. Not good to mix the dead and the living.”
“Perhaps,” I said for time, “I offer you redemption.” Allegne, who had been averting her eyes, suddenly looked at me, eyes wide. Or perhaps you, I thought. The thought did not displease me.
“Perhaps you do. But know this, there are some, many, here who do not seek redemption. They seek only what they know: power, greed, pleasures of the flesh. I believe you have met some of these men. Those men will kill you here, and you will not return to your own time. Even if they do not, you will give up years of your life every time you come here. This time, if it is in your power to leave, I recommend you do not return. This is not a place to choose.”
I reflected on this. It seemed good advice, but just to walk through the curtain between the worlds – did that mean that I already carried the seed of my doom? I looked up from contemplating the dregs of my tea. Herr Obermeyer seemed to follow my train of thought. “Perhaps you will someday end up here, perhaps not. That is the difference, you still have the choice, and once seeing it, it should be an easy one, should it not?” He gave me a pained smile, as if knew it to be just the opposite.
“And yet here we are. Here we are.” I tossed even the dregs down, bitter as they were.
“We cannot stay here,” Allegne interrupted. “You must hide until you leave.” I looked at her; still the time thundered inside me.
“No.” If this was to be my last trip, I must make the most of it, I could not hide. “I’m here. I must know this place. I have to take it back with me. Take me out, show me.”
Her hand went to her mouth. “I cannot! It would seal your doom. You must hide.” I could see she was truly alarmed, but I could not change my mind. Doom doom doom went the great drums in my head, and although I had just tonight noticed them, I was sure they had been with me for a long time.
“With or without you, I must.” I had a sudden inspiration. “You can guide me, keep me out of harm’s way.” She and Obermeyer exchanged a look. Suddenly I reminded myself of the main actor at an intervention I once participated in. “Please, give me an hour. Then we’ll hide.”
Still looking at Obermeyer, she said, “An hour.” We took our leave from the empty glasses and the ludicrously balanced tray. Out on the street she turned into my arms. “Please,” she breathed up to me, “an hour may be all we have, come with me.” I ached with shame, for my need was so great, it surpassed even this gift. “Just a little while,” I promised. “Show me this place. Take me to the café we passed my first night here. I want to see the people.”
“The café is very dangerous, you will be spotted for sure!” I laughed; her fear demanded it.
“I have beat them once.”
She looked more resigned than confident, but grabbing me by the elbow, began walking along the street with me at a leisurely pace, like lovers. Or business associates. She began a steady stream of conversation. In our short walk I learned about her birth in the country, coming to the city when her father took sick. At first working as a seamstress, when the shop owner took a liking to her, she thought her dreams had come true, but when she got pregnant she quickly found herself without a lover, without a job, and since she lived in the dorms with the other girls, without a house. A kindly matron, an acquaintance of the boss, took her in, and continued to pay a small sum to her parents so they didn’t have to find out about her shame. But when the baby was born, she took it and presented Allegne with a bill, saying she would take her parents’ small farm if Allegne couldn’t work it off. So, by dint of being a good, albeit naïve daughter, she was a whore. Even after her parents died, the madam, and her partner the shop owner, charged her more in bills than she they claimed she made. Additionally, the owner now used her body freely. Eventually, after a bad beating when she tried to run she’d flung herself off of the roof and ended up here.
She seemed somehow resigned to her fate: it was bad, but it had been worse before. Her lot was cast.
I felt sick inside. So young, despite all she’d seen and gone through, despite sacrificing her parents, her baby, and even her life, she had to go through it all again. As I thought about it I wondered if perhaps there was a reason I was sent back here.
By now we were at a café, although I couldn’t be sure it was the café. But there was noise, there was music, I almost forgot Allegne’s plight in my quest for new material. But as I turned the corner, I noticed few people sitting around in groups of one or two. The walls were once brightly painted, but the scattered lights managed to accentuate the shadows, murky pools between flickering islands. As my eyes adjusted, I felt vaguely disillusioned. Still I ventured in. Allegne looked nervously around but laughed and played on as lovers. The café was open all along the front, no real door way. We slipped between the tables and sat at one about halfway along the wall towards the back. Eventually the bartender came over. He had slicked back black hair, a pointy little mustache, white shirt and greasy apron. He was as thin from the front as he was from the side. Immediately I mistrusted him, but here, I reflected, I was supposed to mistrust everybody. We ordered, of course, absinthe.
While we waited, I looked around. Everybody pretended not to look at us, by which I knew that they all were. I wasn’t sure if they were specifically looking for me, or if it was just the nature of the place. Either way, I suddenly felt like a ramora in a school of sharks that suddenly recognized me as food. The waiter seemed to take an overly long time to come, and then the water was tepid. I watched Allegne pour hers nonchalantly. I took her in. I knew this would be a painting: the turbulence of the louche, the vivid green still in the glass, her resignation, almost boredom etched in every part of her body, except her eyes. Green as the absinthe, they flicked around, never leaving the front of the café for more than a moment. I realized everybody here but me had the same pose of boredom, but their eyes were like birds’ clicking around like billiard balls, at first with purpose, and then in increasingly unpredictable tracks. Click. Who’s that? Click? Friend, foe? Click. How do I get out of here? Click. Perhaps they were just intoxicated. Of course, I smiled, it was a given that I was intoxicated, or I would not be here, would I? I barked a small laugh, then poured my own drink.
For some reason, I bent down to meet my cup part way. Perhaps the dantiness of it affected me. From that angle, half hunched over, I looked under a palm frond and saw a man in the back of the room, alone at a chessboard. From my days as a wood pusher, I thought I recognized him. I did some quick calculations, and then was pretty sure.
“Excuse me.” I said to Allegne. I was too focused on my prey to take my eyes off of him. This too would be a painting. Oh, if only I had more time! I could spend the rest of my career painting this place! I took my glass and walked to his table. He was bent over the board, and took no notice of my arrival. I watched for a while, fascinated. “That’s the Evan’s gambit isn’t it?” He looked up unsurprised,. “Yes, and I was right after my game with Anderssen, it will always be a lost game for white.” He blinked, as if near-sighted. “Have we met? Paul Morphy, and extended his hand.”
“I think not,” and offered my hand. “But I’ve studied all of your games. Paul Marsh.” Now it was his turn to laugh. “Not all of my games, Yank, for I can see that we come from opposite ends of that great land. You have not studied the games that I have played here.”
I looked around. He sat quite alone. “These studies?” I asked. “Is this what you did after you retired?” He leaned toward me in a conspirational whisper, “One can only play so many games for odds of a move and a pawn, or beat so many simultaneous players blindfolded. Then one seeks the Great Game. For the Great Game, one must sell a little of ones soul, is it not? And he held up a little glass of absinthe. I would prefer to play the White Muse, but only the Black has made herself available.” At that, a piece on the other side of the board moved of its own accord, and Morphy bent back to his game. I knew I was dismissed.
Allegne had come up behind me. I was shaking. Paul Morphy. And the vision was ethched in my brain. Just a few dark strokes of the brush to give full expression to his opponent. Even, he had given me the name: The Dark Muse. My muse. I was afraid my brain held too many images now, that the gift would fail me before I could record them all.
“We must leave. It is time.” I went with her, unresisting. The absinthe coursed through me and suddenly I felt deified. Nothing was beyond me. She took me down narrow and twisted byways. Always, everywhere the light remained the same unremitting gray. Here in the alleys, there were no streetlights casting their shoals of incandescence for us to swim through. Eventually, we came to a door, unremarkable as any other. She turned the knob and we entered, the stairway a dark rectangle. Her room was three flights up, and I stumbled along after her in the dark.
When she opened the door, the scene seemed inevitable. Some old print on the walls, faded nearly to gray, a threadbare rug on the painted wooden floor, a simple dresser with a few things, and a single iron bed. It was humble and clean. Probably this is not where she entertained. She crossed to the dresser and lit two candles. While she did this, I looked out the window. It opened onto a shaft and all I could see up and down were other windows, although none shown light.
I may have mused for a moment, for when I turned she was there behind me, wearing only a shift. I had slaked the needs of my muse, for a while. I wanted now only what she would give me, and perhaps in taking her gentle gift, give her something back, something of her youth and her beauty. The great metronome in my head even faded for a while, there seemed to be no rush. We tipped back onto the bed, and she helped me struggle out of my clothes, for I did not want to let go of her long enough to get undressed. Part of me, far away, thought of Janice, but this did not seem like it could be wrong in any way. Allegne seemed so beautiful, for the first time truly happy. I cupped her breast through the shift and slid her on top of me with my free hand. It was a long slide into warm honey. Her skin smelled just like Ceylonese tea, and I closed my eyes as she kissed me in the hollow of my neck. We both stifled giggles.
Just then the door crashed to the floor. Allegne grabbed me and started screaming “Nooooooo!” Like a mad woman, he nails tearing into my triiceps. I fought her off, half mindful of not hurting her, half mindful that I was a dead man if I could not get to my feet. I’d just wrestled her off of me when two ruffians hauled me out of bed, naked. These were hardened men, much bigger than the children I’d fought on my first trip. They quickly had my arms behind me, with two more blocking the door. The larger of the two, dressed entirely in grimy black leather, walked up and backhanded me so hard the two men holding me also staggered. I could still hear Allegne screaming.
“Shut the bitch up,” my assailant gritted. The man on my right turned to her, and she hit him full in the face with the chamber pot. He put both hands to his ruined nose in surprise, which gave me just enough room to ram the man on my left, using my shoulder to drive him to the wall and knock the wind out of him. I turned quickly to protect Allegne, and things began to go black. Still screaming “Noooo! Noooo!” she lunged for me. I was screaming the same. The man in black thrust her back with his arm, and I blacked out.
I awoke in front of the hearth shaking from the cold stone, and my face throbbing. I got up. I could explain the bruise on my cheek by saying I stumbled into the mantle, but I would need clothes before Janice got up, and it would be best not to have to explain the scratches on my arms. I was taken by an impenetrable sadness, fearing that Allegne would be killed for me, yet knowing that if I dared go back it could seal my doom. I got dressed and sat alone in the dark of my study for the entire day. Yelling at Janice and throwing a book at the door when she tried to come in, in the blackest mood of my life.
Finally, I locked the absinthe in the cabinet by the chimney and headed out to the garage to paint. I thought of the bar, and painted Allegne and her absinthe. Then I painted her threadbare in her threadbare room. I’d never actually seen her naked, but I painted her that way too as unerringly, I was sure, as if we had long been lovers. I stacked the canvases wet around me, and her eyes watched every stroke, never complaining, which only made it worse. I painted her in the street, in the bookshop, under street lamps. She was in bed, and once outside a cottage as a girl. I painted her and painted little slices of her life that I could never splice end-to-end and run as a movie to bring her back.
Finally, Janice came out, I’d been out there painting for several days. I was ragged. I stank. Madness cloaked me. I swooned and staggered before the easel, but the brush never wavered. I think, I would be the first man to commit suicide by painting. I growled at her as she stood behind me, but she just stood there with her arms crossed and looked at all of the paintings.
“Who is she?”
“A girl. A vision. A madness. I don’t know.” I lied badly. “You know how it is, I don’t know where they come from. They haunt me from inside, and won’t let me go until I release them on the canvas.”
“Release them? Or capture them forever?” She sounded like she was thinking aloud, no longer trying to communicate with me. “She looks,” she said, “a lot like me.”
I backed up, my mouth open. How could I have missed it? Trade Allegne’s mousy brown hair for Janice’s blond, green eyes for blue, pain for confidence, and there you had it. The room spun, and I spun with it, crashing into a stack of drying canvases before I passed out.
I awoke in my own bed. Al was there, he said I’d been asleep for two days. Janice was worried to a frazzle. Had I drunk the absinthe? Where did I get the cuts and bruises? “Enough!” I shouted, “Leave me alone”. The room cleared, Janice and Al, and between them the children, every face showing hurt. They hurt. What about me? Leaving Allegne to those animals while I escaped with visions enough to make me rich. When I wanted only for talent, I could not keep myself from the absinthe, could I go back now for honor? And what could I accomplish, surely the thugs had dealt harshly with her, and I would be treated likewise. I scoffed. A dream. All of this for a dream. This was not real, I was sick. But I could feel the bandages around my arms. Sometimes the only way to shake a nightmare is to go back to bed and finish it out. I began to form a plan.
Later when Janice and Al came back, I was appropriately apologetic. I talked about the strain, and admitted I had tried the absinthe. I promised I would give the rest to Al tomorrow, as soon as I was up to getting up. Janice cheered up beautifully, bringing me hot tomato soup, no milk, with buttered wheat toast cut into triangles. I winked at her. She knew that’s how my grandmother used to make it for me when I was sick as a child. Everybody felt much better when they tucked me in and went to bed. I laid there waiting for the mantle clock to strike three, then eased myself out of bed and got dressed. Time to hunt in the Venus hour.
I carried my boots to my study, closed the door and slipped them on. I went to my desk and pulled an old 45 long Colt, another eBay purchase, out of my desk drawer, taking the bullets out of a vase on the bookcase behind. Then I unlocked the cupboard, and poured myself another stiff double shot. There was just enough light to see my reflection in the clock case. “Cheers.” I sat down with a thump just as my vision went dark.
I sprang to my feet on the main avenue. I wasn’t sure which way to go, but strode off confidently to the left sure that either I would find what I needed, or it would find me. Presently, I came upon Herr Obermeyer’s. I had a wicked grimace on me as I burst through the door. He was behind the counter, leafing desperately through one of the myriad opened books that littered it. When he saw me he turned as if to run, but realized that there was no where to go, I was directly across from him and could make it to either end of the counter as fast as he could.
“You bastard.” I pulled the gun, cocked it and pointed it at him. “You only get to live long enough to tell me where Allegne is, then, I suppose, I’m sending you to hell, or wherever you go after here.”
He put his hands up shaking. “Herr Marsh.”
“Don’t even start with me, Kraut.” I’d put it together that long day in the study. The gang hadn’t seen me that I knew of, and nobody had followed us. It had to be Obermeyer that put them onto us. “You sold us out. You lost your chance for the high road. Where is she?”
“Ah.” He sounded so sad, and spoke so lowly I could barely hear him. “Did I not tell you to trust no one? Not even Allegne. She thought that perhaps if she were impaled upon you during the change, that she could go back.” He looked up at me. “It may have worked, I don’t know. I did sell you out. I’m quite afraid I did. But I did it for her. I told them where you were, but they were to leave her alone. We had a deal.”
“Why should I believe you old man?” He rotated one of his hands and I could see several of the fingers were swollen and bent.
“I had to pay a certain price for my deal. I warned you not to come here. You had a choice, and you came. What choice did she ever have? I too made my choice. For me, this was the high road. We both chose.”
I lowered the gun. “What happened to her?”
“You have made a mess, a true mess. You should never have come back. What can you do for her? So far everything you have done has made her life impossibly worse. You cannot imagine.”
Tears were coursing down my face. “What have I done?”
He came around the counter, put his arm around my shoulder and bade me to sit. I slumped with my head in my hands, a terrible headache beat relentlessly upon the backs of my eyes: doomdoomdoom. “Before, you were just a stranger, thwarting them, but when they saw you disappear, they knew you could leave.” I raised my head. “They want that secret and are not so stupid that they would waste their pawn.”
“She is safe?”
“For now. They await your return. If you do not return, it is up to me to divine a way for them to leave.”
I looked at him. “How should I trust you now?”
“These are terrible men, we cannot let them on the world. I tell you the truth because it is in my best interest and because I think you will willingly do that I most want you to do. Even on the high road, I use you.”
“You want me to free her.”
“Once, but it is beyond that now.” He sighed. “Freeing her, freeing us, is not as important as stopping them. You have to stop them. If you don’t, this will be on you, and I have a feeling you will not be leaving either.”
He laughed. Then he bent his head to mine and we talked quickly of many things.
I walked boldly down the street. I doubted I could sneak up on their lair, and if I came boldly to them, I felt I stood a chance of being unmolested. I walked up to a stone warehouse. There was a single hissing gas light over the door, and two thugs lounging against the wall. One stood up to bar my way, but the other held him back, one hand on his friend’s chest, one on an ivory toothpick lolling his mouth. He shot me a wicked smile. I nodded, grabbed the door and went in. I wished my hand hadn’t been so slick on the knob. My head ached.
I was in an anteroom, divided from the warehouse by some kind of caged gate.
‘Ah, the German was right,” the man behind the desk was bald, enhancing his bullet shape. “You delivered yourself.” Slightly behind him on either side were two other thugs, built like dock workers, dressed slightly better. With the two that came in behind me, that made five of them.
“Give me the girl and you can have whatever you want.”
A look of surprise shot around the room. The bullet threw his head back and roared, slapping the desk with his open palm.
Don’t trust anybody. Obviously there was some little turn Herr Obermeyer neglected to tell me. I smiled. What else could I do? “The girl.”
He jerked a thumb back over his shoulder. “Of course, the girl. Such a small matter now.” The henchman nearest the gate slid it open and disappeared into the dark beyond.
“While we wait, perhaps you can enlighten us. How do you come and go, while we must stay?”
“I understood that you were perfectly free to leave, barring being an asshole.” I took a blow at the top of my spine that dropped me to my knees for that one. Perhaps it was a bit Dirty Harry for my crowd.
My host put both hands on his desk and pressed up to a standing position, the better to look down at me. He shook his head. “I overestimated you. I thought you some wizard, walking between the worlds. I anticipated a worthy adversary.”
The bruiser returned, dragging Allegne by the bicep. He tossed her down in front of me with what should have been a sneer, but lacking such subtly, was a guffaw. She crawled to me and threw her arms around my neck. Gently I pried her free, but I didn’t try to stand. I could tell she had been hard kept.
“I was convinced you had some magic, but the bookseller, he said it was just a potion, a potion he made and that you bought one hundred years later. Not only can we leave, we will go into a marvelous age.”
I smiled at him. “It seems that I can only stay a short while, called back from whence I came. How do you expect me to help you? It seems that you will have to redeem yourself.” I used the cover of Allegne to slide the gun out from under my jacket and hold it between our bodies. Either she didn’t notice, or she understood only too well, continuing her affectionate assault.
The brute on his left reached into his belt and pulled out a wicked-looking knife, at least a foot of blade, with a hook on the backside of the tip, like skinners use. “Herr Obermeyer assures me that the secret lies in your blood, can we but harvest it soon enough.” He emphasized enough, and the gang began to close on us. I put my left arm around Allegne and with my right drew the gun from between us. I took the one with the knife first, gut shot, like Al had told me one night discussing his handgun training after a few beers. Turns out this crouched on the floor the perfect angle to put them through the middle. He wasn’t going to die fast, and he wasn’t going to be quiet. The bullet and the man next to him froze, so I spun and shot the man between us and the door.
We jumped up. I threatened the other one by the door and he dropped back, giving us a straight shot. The Long Colt came out in 1877, and he probably knew what he was up against. We pelted through, but I could tell Allegne was weak and we wouldn’t have a long run. I debated waiting down the alley and just picking them off, but wasn’t confident that I’d seen them all, or even that I could be that cold-blooded. We ran as best we could. We got about a block before the door crashed open. The bullet came out. In the light of the door I could seem him throw his head back and bay like a wolf. We ran.
Life is funny. And then it isn’t, but you don’t know that until it gets deadly serious. We weaved and caromed down the alleys and byways. Occasionally, a bullet ricocheted by us. Of course I didn’t expect them not to have guns; I just didn’t expect them to expect me to have a gun. I assumed they would have an inflated sense of control, and I had been right, although for all of the wrong reasons.
The gray light, the intoxication of the absinthe, the monotony of the surroundings, the fear, it was a blur. At first I assumed Allegne knew her course, but I soon realized that she was lost, forced far beyond her traditional haunts. We weren’t running toward a haven, then, only away from death. It made no difference, I’m sure we both assumed the city was infinite. We twisted and turned, and yet they dogged us, as if that baying was prophecy. Perhaps, I mused, our destinies are still linked, and thus we cannot lose them. I do not know what propelled her. It was only chasing her that kept me going.
The most amazing thing happened: ahead of us, I swore the alley was lightening. I don’t think Allegne noticed, but I grabbed her, spending my last energy in a desperate sprint. The alleyway ended in a small parapet. I looked over it, and in the distance there was a beach. Sun streamed through black storm clouds and highlighted the break. Between, there was gentle farmland, with haymows and whitewashed cottages. “Ma maison!” Allegne shrieked, clapping her hands to her face.
I had the draw of it now. Here we were, poised between life, and rebirth. The running was over. I grabbed her and pushed her behind the building at the end of the alley. She was totally lost in the scene in front of us. I had four bullets, there were three pursuers left, if they hadn’t picked up re-enforcements. I admit I’d been too busy during the run to count. I crouched across the alley from her, behind the building on the other side. I’m not a crack shot. But I also didn’t think I could wait until they were all within gutshot range and still guarantee getting all of them.
I want to tell you I saved her, but ultimately this story isn’t about her, it’s about me. That’s the way it is, isn’t it? No matter what happens in your life, who your arc intersects, it’s all about you. As soon as you forget that, mistakes happen. Tangents are run, other circles are intersected, spirals suck at you, become vortices. I can say that I went there for my own reasons, even when I went back for her. I can say that I gave her the best chance she got. I won’t tell you that that’s enough for me, but it should be, and I hope that it is enough for you when you have to make decisions, in the Venus hour.
I yelled at her, waved her over the parapet. A steady stream of bullets came down the alley, separating us. “Go,” I shouted, tears streaming down my face. “Go. Go.” It was a whisper now. I couldn’t look at her. I rolled into the alley and drew a bead, carefully squeezing off the shots. One. A man dropped. Two. Nothing. Three. Things began getting dark, I passed out.
I don’t know if I’m a great man. I don’t even know if I’m a good man. I know that somewhere, greatness is within me.
I don’t’ really paint anymore, not for public consumption, anyway. I occasionally will find myself in front of the easel, driven by some particularly vivid memory. I hardly ever finish them. It doesn’t really matter. I spend a lot more time with Janice, and the kids.
STRENGHEN/COUNTERPOISE WITH FINAL PARAGRAPH
Of course, I went looking for M. Dupont, him of the bridges. And, of course, he wasn’t there. In fact, the building wasn’t even there. Crooked houses packed the crooked lane as far as the eye could see, and not one baby tooth cottage in that gap-toothed grin. That’s okay. I didn’t really expect him to be there. But I still had one question for him, and now I knew a little bit about hunting for, and being hunted by, those things that live in the dark borders of the Venus hour. I didn’t worry too much about it. I waited a while, and occasionally when the mood struck me and the family was abed, I’d stalk my prey in eBay’s twilit forests. It didn’t take long, two years, maybe three. One night, just in the Venus hour, I came across the strangest item: “Poes Laudanum. Provenance. $1500.” The price had gone up, the seller’s name had changed, but the auction only ran for one hour. Of course, I’d changed my user name, but I played my same old game, and at 3:59:40 AM, I bid $1602. I could afford it; prints of my paintings still sold well, especially the gothics.
Naturally, I won. And I wasn’t at all surprised to find the seller had a local address, on Ceres Street. Almost amused, I made the appointment, but this time I waited until after work. I didn’t even bother to drive, even though it was one of those New England days that freezes the snot right in your nose. I’ve been taking walks on Ceres Street all my life. Know quite a bit about the place, actually. It has some of the oldest buildings in the country, and once the tallest. The waters used to lap the buildings’ edges. Ceres Street itself running between the buildings and the water is relatively recent. I’d heard that smugglers’ tunnels once ran out of these buildings to the water line, but nobody is sure any more. The address found me at an ancient door covered in layers of gloss black paint. I’d never noticed it before, which wasn’t’ so surprising. What did surprise me was that when I opened the door, steps lead down, certainlly below the waterline.
Like most of the steps in Portsmouth, these were steep and narrow and demanded your full attention. These were hewn of native granite whose harsh edges were gentled by the years. There were candle sconces just close enough together to throw everything into high relief. When I finally I reached a second door, I was at least two floors below street level. I opened it into a narrow little room, brightly lit. It had a high counter dividing it, so that there was just room to stand before it and room for a clerk and a door behind. Stock was down to a few small chests and phials. Behind the counter stood M. Dupont. To his credit, he did not seem at all surprised to see me, in fact, he seemed delighted. “Mr. Marsh! So good to see you. And the absinthe, it was everything you hoped?”
I eyed him, and swung my glance once more around the room, though I was sure I hadn’t missed anything the first time. “M. Dupont, may we dispense with charade?” I recognized him now. He was a little older, had a little more hair, and a beard, but change the name, change the accent and rearrange the hair, and it was Herr Obermeyer. He leaned his elbows against the counter. “I suppose, we can.”
“I have only one question for you.” I looked him directly in the eye, not knowing why I would believe his answer. “Are you the devil?”
At that he stood up and slapped the counter. He laughed with gusto and looked more like St. Nick than Old Nick. Finally his laughs subsided. “No, no. I’m just a purveyor of oddities. I try to match people up with what they need.” He leaned forward. “Tell me, what was it like?” There was a stark hunger in his face. I was baffled, didn’t he know that he inhabited both realms? Perhaps Herr Obermeyer had won his second chance after all, but even now repeated his old failings. Are we doomed, I wondered, to go around and around on this wheel, never getting off, playing the same hand above and below?
“What are you? Some leech who preys on others?”
He backed off, waving his hands at me. “No, Paul, no. It is not like that.” He waved his hands around the room. “I have the means, I have the hunger. Like you, I lust for something. For greatness. I can feel it, but I cannot taste it. You know it. I saw it in you when we first met. You have slaked your thirst. I – I lack the nerve.”
I began to understand. He’d had his very soul weighed and come through, but he had no knowledge of it, and now facing the same test, there was some residual force holding him back. Some force he resented. Is this our bane? “The philter, where is it?” He looked askance at me, but rummaging around beneath the counter, brought it up an old whiskey bottle and cut glass tumbler.
“I have the complete provenance, of course,” he began, but I cut him off. I took out my checkbook and raised an eyebrow. “Of course, monsieur,” he said. I wrote it out and signed it with a flourish. I opened the bottle and poured a good stiff shot.
“There’s a man you need to talk to,” I said, sliding the glass across the counter. He looked down at it and looked up at me. “Just once, go, be careful, and come back. Look for a bookseller..” I turned and walked up the stairs, my last memory of him standing there looking at the glass and licking his lips.
Like a lot of addicts, I still keep the bottle around. And I won’t even pretend I don’t know exactly where it is. It’s in the cupboard to the left of the fireplace in my study, buried behind some other almost forgotten but not discarded things, but not so far that I couldn’t get to it. Some pretend that they keep their poisons close by as a reminder, proof that they’ve forever conquered their demons. I don’t buy it.
I think we keep those things around in case things get too good. In case the bubble keeps growing and growing and we’re afraid it will pop, leaving us without this new drug of success. So we keep around a long sharp hatpin to pierce it, in case we need to take the low road, a safe haven of pain we understand. A spectrum of success and failure whose bounds we have traversed. Trapped on either end by our fear, we rattle around like a pea in a whistle while just beyond there is air and air and air.