Shiva tried to sleep, but the sound of whips and paddles working Mags’s willing victim on the other side of the wall made it impossible. She turned up the rain track in her headphones and curled into a tiny ball on a tiny bed in her tiny room. Her room was a poorly-converted crawlspace in the back of a walk-in closet. Photos and other relics of her travels covered gaps in the drywall; the rafters laid bare, insulation, partially-exposed, but it was home when she needed it, which after being forced out of her beloved houseboat a month earlier, felt frequent. Every part of her new home besides this room was shared with strangers.
La Lune Rouge served as sort of a halfway house for trafficked girls, providing a safehouse for them to make money on their own term’s outside their loverboy’s eyes, either while still under their control or after being freed. Below Mags and Shiva’s top floor “lair suite” were six floors of eighteen rent-free bedrooms, a piano bar, and an underground cabaret lounge where the girls could also express themselves creatively in La Lune Rouge’s nightly, all-night cabaret show, Hell, made up mostly of formerly trafficked persons.
Being a Parisian-style cabaret show in Amsterdam below a speakeasy-style piano bar, the Hell show had become wildly popular with locals, but also their most highly-guarded secret, hence the zero online presence and its unwelcoming locality. And while the police were aware of the questionable activities in the rooms above, the police chief was one of Mags’s best clients and the department just had one of its biggest trafficking busts because of their help.
Shiva turned on a dim light overhead and switched to music. Her mother’s favorite, “Il dolce suono”, from Lucia di Lammermoor struck like electric equanimity. Tragic operas always made Shiva happier.
Before the disease, her mother had aspirations to be an opera singer, but like her fleeting interests in poetry, photography, and painting, she never could commit. She wasn’t really the commitment type. Neither of her parents were being longtime swingers before they were parents. But still, even when her mother’s sickness was at its worst and she was not at all pleasant to be around, Shiva had never seen two people who loved each other more, a love she greatly starved for but simply didn’t have the time to find. Love is not easy when your life is so limited and it means damning someone else to your curse.
Although her parents never said it, Shiva knew she never would have existed had they known about the disease before conceiving. No parent wants to damn their offspring no less than they want to damn their lover. This was why she had decided long ago art was a better place to put her heart than love and children. There it wouldn’t be damning anyone. That is until she met Mags, or “Queen Kali” as she called herself at the time. Mags was already damned. She too was living with a lurking killer she’d inherited from her mother, ALS.
“That’s why it couldn’t have seemed more aligned,” Shiva said to her mother’s tarot deck. “I had just lost luna hunny and my heart was empty, and right when I needed it, right after I ‘passed through the eye of insanity’, the perfect love found me. But love isn’t supposed to be perfect. I know that now because divine love visited me last night and its timing couldn’t have been worse, yet exactly what I needed. But now I’ve lost it and I need your help finding it again. After all Mom, I believe it was you who brought me it in the first place. How else can I explain it?”
Shiva always spoke to her mom as if she were praying and always had the Ace of Cups in her hands when she did. But today her Ace of Cups was missing, so it was the full tarot deck instead.
Her mother had bequeathed her the Ace of Cups along with the deck in her suicide note, left with her will and written long before she lost her mind, body, and life completely. She wrote it during her pregnancy after discovering her unborn daughter had a fifty percent chance of inheriting her curse, and written in the event she did.
When I’m not there, let this card be a reminder I still am, the note said about the Ace of Cups. It represents the love and curse that connects us, a connection that goes much further than just mother and daughter, and one that reaches far beyond Earth. Let it also be a reminder of the chalice in you that deserves to be filled. You may be cursed, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have gifts for this world and don’t deserve to know divine love before you leave it. And I promise you will know it before we see each other again. I’m just leaving you for now before I become something other than your mother. That’s what’s so horrible about our curse; it hollows you out while you’re still living and not only robs you of your mind and body, but replaces you with a crippled demon. I want to be remembered as your mother, not a demon.
None of this will make sense to you right now and you’re probably very confused and hurt, but divine love always looks like certain madness in the beginning. Peace isn’t sewn without passing through the eye of insanity first. However, after you do, divine love will find you, and that’s also when you’ll know the divine love I always had for you.
Shiva took the deck out of the case and began shuffling, then placed two cards on top of each other in a cross formation, a simple problem-answer formation. First was her problem. She flipped it: the Death card again. She flipped the next one. It was impossible. The Ace of Cups. Where had it come from if it wasn’t with Walter?
The closet door then opened and blue light from the bedroom oozed in. Shiva put the Ace of Cups card in her nightgown pocket, then put the rest of the cards away. She then crawled out of her crawlspace.
Grateful For The Dead
“Is this the best of all possible worlds?” Walter asked the statue of Voltaire from the crypt floor.
“God, I hope not,” the statue replied back. “But you should always be grateful for a garden that needs cultivating. Boredom doesn’t come from an absence of happiness, but from an absence of suffering, because without suffering, eventually philosophical speculating—aka those voices in your head—will drive you to suicide.”
“But still, what an absurd way of looking at life. I need suffering to make life fulfilling? And how much uncultivated garden can one person handle before it’s better to just put down the plough and pick up the gun?”
“That’s a question only the person can answer because it is the only question everyone must answer, whether or whether not to commit suicide in the face of life’s absurdity.”
“Okay Camus, no one asked your opinion.”
“You’re the one who brought up absurdity. And you don’t think I’ve kept up with the progression of philosophy in the afterlife? But regardless, the conclusion to his and my opinions are the same. A mountainous journey contains many more miles than a flat one because it offers the perspective of a new dimension. And perspective is where the beauty of suffering can be seen and how one can appreciate the absurdity of the journey—or their garden.”
“Or in other words, enlightenment through suffering . . . You know Voltaire,” Walter said rubbing his chin, “everyone pins you as optimism’s adversary, but I believe you’re actually one of its biggest advocates. You just believe optimism shouldn’t be blind and idle, but instead the fertilizer for our gardens. Only through the shit of life can we grow a new perspective on it. And while I’m not certain of anything anymore, I am certain of this: insanity certainly hasn’t been boring. So cheers to you Monsieur Arouet, or shall I say, santé!”
Sat upon the ground, leaning against a marbled wall, Walter raised his CamelBak backpack to the statue like a hobo raising a flask, then stuck the straw in his mouth and sucked the last of his whiskey-water mixture down.
“Don’t tell Rousseau or the Curies I said it,” he continued, “but in this ‘temple of every god’, you’re mine. If there was anyone I’d want to sit down and have a drink or joint with—actually you know what, let’s go 18th Century style and get loaded on caffeine and find a salon to theorize in.”
“Yes sir, please do,” the museum security guard said. He then turned to the statue. “But I’m sorry Voltaire, you must stay here. However, I believe it will make no difference if you want to still carry on this conversation elsewhere.”
“What?” Walter said. “I don’t understand.”
“Monsieur, vous devez partir, s’il vous plait.”
“Quoi—I mean, what? Je ne comprends pas français—I mean, I don’t understand French.”
The guard exhaled politely. “You must go.”
“Cinq minutes plus s’il vous plait?—I mean, can I have five more—”
“Can you please stop that sir? Please, just French or English. And no, I already give you five minutes. The other guests, they complain. You are not alone here.”
“Oh.” The audience of tickled and uneasy faces suddenly appeared before Walter. When he first entered Voltaire’s tomb, he’d been alone, but in the two hours since and a CamelBak’s worth of whiskey-water later, apparently it had filled without his notice.
“I’m calling the police,” the security guard said. Walter jumped up quickly.
“No-no. Not necessary,” he said. “It’s time for me to go anyway. I have other people to see—or not see.” He then turned to Voltaire one last time. “Merci moi. Merci.”
Taking a taxi, Walter told the driver to take a lap of the city past the Eiffel Tower then a few rounds on the world’s most famous roundabout around the Arc de Triomphe. As they drove, he had never seen anything like Paris. Flat pastures of civilization barnacled with visible history for as far as the eye could see, then faded into a hazy horizon of skyscraper islands fenced in distinct districts of modernity.
After a sleepless night in his Amsterdam hostel, he’d taken the first train there, and as much as he tried to sleep then drink himself to sleep on the train, his mind wouldn’t shut up. So he figured might as well consult the dead before seeing the living in Paris since they had been of more help lately. But after spending his morning with Descartes at the Saint-Germain-des-Prés abbey, then his afternoon at the Panthéon with the Curies, Rousseau, and his longest visit, Voltaire, these consultations didn’t seem as vivid as his previous one—or ones—had been. And as hard as he tried to take himself out of the conversation with whiskey and believe he was hearing their voices, he knew in reality he was only consulting himself through them.
After breezing past the Eiffel Tower, his taxi crossed over the Seine, then entered the Arc de Triomphe roundabout that was ten unmarked lanes wide with twelve intersecting streets. As they cut into this circling circus, it seemed like everyone was in a game to get to the center of the roundabout where its stone overlord stood like the Kaaba to motor vehicles. Tour buses took polite, lethargic turns around, while small cars and scooters stung and squirmed through the open gaps. There was a constant cheeping of horns, not so much in discord, but in communication like bats echolocating one another. Taxi cars were the most common worshiper crammed with people craning their necks and cameras up to capture the colossal creature in the center standing taller than any surrounding building and resembling a gigantic, gaudy anchoring pin dedicated to “winning”. But as Walter orbited this “triumphal” arc, all he did was think about all the defeats it played a role in. But a monument erected to the ego in the center of your city is just asking to be made a mockery of.
The irony of this “triumphal” arc and its circling circus was making for very comical surrealism in Walter’s liquored head. He began to gush with laughter which soon turned to hiccups. Then the lack of oxygen and spinning began making him feel dizzy and suddenly his whiskey wanted out. His taxi driver hearing his dry heaving as it climbed up his esophagus, raced to the center just in time for Walter to expel it out onto the arc.
His taxi driver then skidded away, but Walter easily found another sucker at a nearby taxi lane and continued on his way to Père Lachaise Cemetery.
“Dans ces derniers jours!” a stoutly woman vagrant was shouting at the gates of the main entrance of the cemetery like some retail department store greeter. Although he was only able to decipher the aforementioned phrase which followed almost every sentence, it was clear she was trying to scare the uncaring sightseers walking past her into repentance. Walter couldn’t ignore her.
“…dans ces derniers jours!” she yelled at him after some muddled French.
“Quoi?” he said, but got the same response. She then reached out and put something in his hand. It was a map of the cemetery.
“Oh. Merci,” he said to her. “Où est Chopin?” he asked pointing to the map, but got the same “dans ces derniers jours!” response.
Using the map instead, Walter easily located Chopin beneath his impressive and gated tombstone which not only had his portrait carved into it, but a life-size sculpture of the muse of music, Euterpe, weeping on top of it.
Sitting at the steps of the grave, looking at Chopin’s face, little was said, but much was felt, just like his music. Then like Euterpe, Walter too shed deep sobs over the short and somber life which was Frédéric Chopin’s.
Tormented by ill love and health all his life and estranged from his Polish homeland and heritage, the vulnerability, intimacy, and bravery which fed his compositions listens like a diary, as if written for his hands and ears only. Unlike the many prominent and showboating Parisian pianists of his time, Chopin hated the spotlight and rarely performed publicly, preferring the privacy of salons. The ultimate and original romantic, he died young and broke at the age of thirty-nine, but composing since the age of seven, his artistic output was that of a man who knew he had little time on Earth.
Once finished with his weeping, Walter opened his backpack and took out a small bouquet of violets he’d purchased from a flower shop that morning and placed them on the grave, then continued on.
Not far from Chopin’s was the much more modest tomb of Marcel Proust, just a forlorn black platform etched with his name. Sitting on it, Walter ran his hand over the letters cut into the polished black marble and thought about Amber. Even though he was there because she asked him, he’d grown a great appreciation for the writer because of her.
Inspired by his father who had been responsible for eradicating cholera in France, Marcel Proust wanted to write a book that would do as much good for humanity as his father’s work. The subsequent result was a massive masterpiece called In Search of Lost Time, a story about a man’s journey to find the meaning and purpose of life in an effort to learn how to best appreciate existence and make the best use of time. In it are explored three possible answers.
“Fame?” Walter said to the grave. “If only I had read your book when I was younger maybe I wouldn’t have wasted so much time seeking it because it’s exactly as you said: a fraud. Anyone who thinks fame will gain you access to some extraordinary stratum of happiness will be sorely disappointed. No amount of money, celebrity, or titles can ever save you from misery, loneliness, and stupidity.
“So what about love? I mean, that’s why I’m here in Paris. But however honorable love may advertise itself, fulfilling your life through the love of another has only a vacuum of meaning once that love abandons you, a lesson Amber unfortunately taught me all too well, but so did Shiva. We will always be lonely islands within the sea of ourselves, and until you can get comfortable living there, no one else will.
“So what? Are we just supposed to be content in our suffering then, cultivating our gardens on our lonely islands? The answer is yes. As children, our gardens and islands were all we needed. And it’s not so much we grew out of them, we just forgot how big and extraordinary they actually are. But what reminds us is art. It can make even the most mundane novel again. And whether we consider ourselves ‘novel’-ists or not, we’re all writing at least one story: our life, and doesn’t that story deserve to be novel? Should it not be the medium for our greatest masterpiece? Yet so many of us copy in fear of failure and surrender our childhood powers of creativity and curiosity to the stability and predictability of habit, then wonder why the time seems to pass us by so quickly or why life always feels so empty. The purpose and meaning of life is finding purpose in meaninglessness and meaning in purposelessness, and for everyone that answer is different, but it can only come from questioning yourself. However, that’s a hard thing to do if you don’t love yourself or are afraid to be with yourself. Yourself shouldn’t be a stranger.”
Walter sat up from the tombstone in astonishment. Although he knew the story, he had never understood it so clearly until now. But often the arrow of time is what finally zippers together the cogs of knowledge and experience into understanding.
He took out a metal spoon from his backpack and found a small patch of dirt next to the tomb and began digging. Once he had a small hole, he took out Amber’s suicide note and placed it in it.
“Thank you,” he said. “I hope you can forgive me. But even if you don’t think I deserve forgiveness, I will always love you for what you always gave me: love. You didn’t deserve to die alone feeling unloved, and I’m so sorry for that Amber. I love you. I love you.”
He then took out his lighter and lit the note, and once it was ashes, he buried them in the dirt and continued to his final grave.
The air seemed to suddenly chill as Walter neared his purposeful final destination, Jim Morrison’s grave, hidden in a dense thicket of headstones. He knew he was getting closer by the growing number of young people around, but also a faint voice prickling his ears telling him he was. Stopping to listen, he then heard what the voice was saying, or more so singing, “Harvest Moon”. His hair stood on end.
“No, it’s not,” Walter said, but it sure sounded like it. He had never heard another voice like it.
Now tremoring, he moved slowly toward the grave, the volume of the voice only increasing. After cresting a hill, he then at last saw the grave he’d been seeking, and in front of it, a brilliant red beacon beaming in the sunlight, the same red he had seen on the pillow the morning after his night in Amsterdam. However, whoever was beneath this red hair had her back to him and was sitting with a guitar, playing toward the grave. Around her was a small crowd listening under a gum-and-graffiti-infested tree that had been decorated by Jim’s admirers.
Continuing toward her, Walter started singing along. Hearing his voice, she turned around and roused to her feet in surprise, dropping the guitar on the ground, but neither stopped singing. Her eyes were tinted by rose-colored glasses. A royal blue summer dress hung over her black canvas Doc Martens. They stepped toward him.
Once within reach, Walter touched her face, expecting it to change like the others, but this one stayed. He then took off the glasses and big gray eyes smiled back at his.
“I want to see you dance again…” they sang as they took each other’s arms and began dramatically dancing around the tree like they did on the boat deck. At the end of the song, he then dipped her, then kissed her, and only after the kiss did he become entirely convinced of her existence.
“How dare you start our song without me,” he said.
“Who said I didn’t know you were coming?” she replied. “How else were you supposed to find me?”
“Shiva?” Walter asked. “Are you really her? Are you really here?”
“Yes,” Shiva said smiling. “I’m really me, and I’m really here. Been here for quite some time actually. It’s the only place I knew you’d be in Paris. Is it really you Walter? Are you really here?”
“Yes, I am—well, I think I am. Je pense, donc je suis.”
They both then fell to the ground crying and laughing madly, kissing ever inch of each other’s salty cheeks.
“I love you Shiva,” Walter said. “Maybe it’s premature, but you wouldn’t believe what I had to go through to say it.”
“I love you Walter,” Shiva replied. “And believe me, I know. You also wouldn’t believe what I had to go through to say it. It’s been a long strange trip since Red Rocks.”
“Red Rocks?” Walter said sitting up.
Shiva smirked and also sat up. “You still haven’t figured it out?” she said. “You really think you survived being struck by lightning?”
“Lightning? . . . Wait, I’m… I’m dead?”
“Surprise!” she said laughing.
“But… but what about all the people I’ve met since then?” Walter asked.
“Some in your head, some dead like you, some alive depending on the ‘time’,” Shiva replied. “No one really knows in the afterlife. Here there is no such thing as ‘time’; no such thing as dead or alive. We souls live in the world of Schrödinger's cat you could say. Like massless particles, we are unaffected by spacetime and therefore can exist at all possible places at all possible times. This shouldn’t surprise you. It all falls within the laws of physics.”
“I suppose it does…” Walter said, but his head was shaking no.
“You still don’t believe me,” Shiva noticed.
“I don’t know what to believe. All I know is Death was much simpler being nothing . . . So does this mean there’s a God? Is He Kurt Vonnegut?”
Shiva laughed again. “It’s not impossible,” she replied, “but to be honest, I’m not sure who’s running the show, or if anyone is running the show. And also, if there is a God, He would most likely be an It. No gender pronouns in the afterlife. Just like we are neither dead or alive, we are neither male or female since every soul has lived as both throughout existence. Plus I’ve been told by other souls the x chromosome goes on to out evolve the y chromosome in future generations of humans anyway, and in the year 4000 F.E., Homo cypiens officially designated everyone an ‘it’. But don’t worry. We have all the ‘time’ in the world to get to all that later. Right now we’ve got a joint to smoke and a bottle of wine to drink with Jim,” she said pulling both out of a bag.
“Like in-person?” Walter asked.
“Oh no. Just in-body. Last I heard Jim’s soul was almost finished redoing its life over as a writer.”
“You can do that?”
“Many times over, and you already have many times over. But guess what? You no longer have to. Today we leave purgatory together, and that calls for a celebration!”
Walter began shaking his head again. “Purgatory is real?” he said.
“Nothing is ‘real’,” Shiva said laughing, “but yes. We’re in it. But not for much longer.”
“So what’s next?” he asked. “Paradise?”
“So I’ve been told.”
“What’s it like?”
“Hopefully like paradise, but I’ve never been. I’ve been waiting here for you.”
“How long have you been waiting?” Walter asked.
“Almost a year in ‘living’ years, but that’s nothing in purgatory,” Shiva said. “I kind of got a hall pass on purgatory, however, I wasn’t going to leave without you, so that’s why I gave you my hall pass, the Ace of Cups. It entangled our souls together and that’s why you were quantum-tracked through purgatory.”
“Like quantum entanglement?”
Shiva smiled. “Now you’re getting it,” she said. “It was my mother’s hall pass and she—it was a she at the ‘time’—gave me the pass just before she passed on from purgatory. Her purgatory, however, was served ‘in life’, so when she gave it to me I was still ‘living’ and just a child.”
“So I was supposed to be in purgatory much longer?” Walter asked.
“From a four dimensional spacetime perspective you were. But you’ll eventually learn to see things outside your lower-dimensional bias.”
Walter’s head began shaking in disbelief again. “So were you dead or alive when I met you?” he asked.
“You’ve really got to let go of being dead or alive,” she said. “In reality we’re all just being. However, yes. I was ‘dead’ just like you. I just didn’t know it at the ‘time’, just like you.”
“What did you die from? Huntington’s?”
“Again, dying is relative just like ‘time’, but at the ‘time’ the disease never had ‘time’ to get me.”
“What did then?” Walter asked.
“Well…” Shiva said looking off to the side, “essentially I killed myself by entangling us together. ‘Time’ had to be adjusted so that you and I died at the same ‘time’ in the past, but still met at the same ‘time’ in the future. In order to do that, the past and future had to be layered on top of one another. But this happens all the ‘time’ to ‘time’ because ‘time’ is nothing but a construct of our lower-dimensional four-dimensional plane. But again, none of this should be a surprise to you. After all, it is what you theorized.”
“Yes…” Walter said, but his head was still saying no. “But theorizing about the universe is much easier than accepting it.”
“Don’t worry,” Shiva said caressing his face, “you’ll adjust. Just imagine if our universe—which is in truth just a fraction of the universe—was shrunk to the size of an atom and someone tried probing in. Do you think that being could even fathom our idea of ‘time’ from their perspective? No, they’d see an entire timeline of the universe playing out at all possible places and at all possible times just like we do when we probe into the world of the atom. However, when you’re unaffected by the fabric of spacetime and no longer bound by the rules of light like us souls are, you realize our world and the world of the atom are one in the same.”
“Okay. But still, you haven’t explained how you died. You died on our four-dimensional plane in some way and at some ‘time’ to be here, right?”
Shiva looked at Walter sideways and smiled. “That’s another story for another ‘time’,” she replied. “But right now, let’s just enjoy this weed and wine.”
Death Should Always Be Played Loudly
Late-afternoon light poured in from the tall windows of Amsterdam Centraal Station’s main hall, buzzing like a beehive in the busy rush hour traffic. Penetrating the din, however, was Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28, No. 4. Walter only knew that prelude by name because he had borrowed from it to create his prelude for “Bowie’s Nocturne”, the last song he ever performed onstage.
He followed the playing to a black grand piano tucked into a back corner of the hall with the words BESPEEL MIJ - PLAY ME stickered on it. Behind it was a short-haired brunette in a black formal dress, whacking into the keys. As she neared the end of the short piece, as if to spite the clatter of rolling suitcase wheels and indeterminate chatter droning past her, unlike any other interpretation he had heard, she insolently increased the intensity beyond even the volume of the climax, punching the final chord in so hard it brought her to her feet.
Her head stayed bowed after, while fine plumes of dust her performance disturbed spangled in the golden-hour sunlight as they fell back to Earth. She then brought her face up to Walter’s eyes as only he was applauding. It was a face he’d seen before, the foxlike face of the hostess from La Lune Rouge. As he drew closer to leave a tip on the hood of the piano, however, although similar and again of about the same age, the face changed into a stranger.
“Dank u,” she said.
“Mooi... uh, bespeel mij,” Walter said reading the Dutch on the piano. He had learned the word for beautiful from Shiva after she had complimented his “mooi dansen”.
The girl laughed. “Mijn excuses meneer Chopin. Ik hou er niet van om de dood mooi te spelen.”
“I’m sorry, what? That’s the only Dutch I know.”
She laughed again. “Yes...” she said in a strong accent, but not a Dutch accent, something more Eastern European. “...that is very obvious. You say ‘play me beautifully’, so I say, ‘I don’t like to play you beautifully Mister Chopin.’”
“Oh, I see,” Walter said smiling. “But actually, I thought your un-beautiful playing was the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. It’s like you opened up a new dimension of the song I didn’t know was there.”
“Dimension?” she said. “What do you mean?”
“Um… it’s like you found a new meaning to the song, a new world no one knew was there. And it’s beautiful. I almost can’t imagine the song or the world any other way now. I guess you could say your performance was life changing.”
She smiled bashfully. “Dank u,” she said again. “You are very kind. Not many people like the way I play your death. But I’m glad you like your death played loudly.”
She laughed again. “This was the song you chose to have played at your funeral, Mister Chopin.”
“Oh, that’s right.” He had forgotten that fact. “And yes, death should always be played loudly.”
Outside the train station in the brick-faced canyons of Amsterdam’s downtown area, bike paths crisscrossed the city like tracks on a circuit board, encircling Walter’s ears with trickling bicycle gears and bells. Everyone from businessmen with briefcases to mothers with children rode about in a more tranquil demeanor when compared to car commuters back home.
After consuming a quick dinner from FEBO, a Dutch fast food chain made entirely of self-serve vending machines with the exception of the beverages ironically, he found a cheap hostel for the night that had two guest computers in the lobby. Using one of them, he looked up directions to the nearest police station and Maloe Melo, but had no luck finding anything for “La Lune Rouge Amsterdam”, “Dug DeMargo Amsterdam”, or “Kali and The Easy Wind Grateful Dead Tribute Amsterdam”. He then tried “Lady Duc de Glace dominatrix Amsterdam”, and at last found something, a personal website advertising her services.
After checking over his shoulder to make sure no one was looking and clicking the agreement he was over eighteen, he was taken to a homepage with an image of the Golden Ass he’d heard so much about, and no doubt, it was the best ass he’d ever seen, forming a perfect heart in the center of his screen as its owner was fully bent over, bound in rich olive skin and black sheer lingerie, supported by two long, muscular legs on a base of double platform fuck-me pumps. ENTER was written across the heart.
Walter clicked and was taken to another page with a black and white side profile of a naked man on his knees in a latex gimp mask and a spiked leather dog collar attached to a leash held by a woman who towered over him with short, black, swooped-back hair in fishnet pantyhose wearing a white business shirt and a black fitted vest. In her other hand was a metallic device that made Walter’s rectum pulse with phantom pangs. It looked like a C-clamp with a surgical rib spreader attached to the opening end, the prongs dripping in a translucent viscous fluid. Over the device was written EET FUK.
Walter clicked and was taken to a calendar which was booked solidly until the fall. Other than an inquiry form to make a reservation, which required a fifty-euro deposit, there was no other contact information, and nothing else to click except for a photo gallery. After looking over his shoulder again, he clicked.
Scrolling through, although her face was partially obscured in every photo either by angle or mask, his mind was able to cobble together a face of extraordinary splendor, and not a sweet splendor, but a splendor that left him in throbbing knots because the fantasy of fucking her with the ferocity of mating baboons refused to leave his head. No wonder there was a long waiting list to be brutalized by her. Even Walter felt himself tempted as blood began boiling and swelling into his bellbottoms.
Reaching the end of the gallery, he was again treated to her rear-end, a gif this time that made the Golden Ass shake to and fro. It lulled him into a tonic state by its perfect applebottomness. All he wanted was to grasp at it and could think of nothing else.
Two teenage girls then entered the lobby and sat down at the computer beside him before he had time to hide the Golden Ass. They giggled as he quickly closed the page, then giggled even harder when he stood up.
Going first to the police station, he found no one under the name Shiva (Walter never did get her last name or verify if Shiva was indeed her real first name) had been booked in the last week. He tried describing her, but the receptionist could offer no further help as she had a line of people behind him to deal with.
At Maloe Melo, Shiva’s amps and cabs she had stored there were gone, but the staff, who only spoke broken English, seemed to have no clue who he was talking about, and they said Patrick retired a year earlier. However, since he was the former owner, he did come in on special occasions to work, so maybe Walter wasn’t completely crazy. But when he asked if they could tell him where Patrick lived, they then thought he was and politely asked him to leave.
Still too restless to call it a day, he continued searching into evening, walking down streets at random, hoping to find something that could help him, and eventually that something came: his urinal. From there, he found Dug’s apartment complex rather easily, and at the entrance was a callbox with a directory, and listed in apartment 622 sure enough was Dug DeMargo.
Walter jabbed the digits, but it only rang endlessly, then cut off after a minute. He tried again, and again, but nothing. After loitering around the entrance for twenty minutes, finding no one who would let him in, he then began calling again, and on the third attempt, finally the call was picked up.
“Fuck off ya cunt!” the callbox shouted then clicked off. Walter dialed again. “Listen, if you don’t leave—”
“Dug it’s Walter. Don’t hang up.”
“What? Walty? What the fuck do you want?”
“It’s a long story, but I need your help. Please.”
“Sorry mate, but can’t help ya. Got me own hands full right now.”
“Can I help you then?”
“Fuck off. I know who you are.”
“Who’s that? Your other fake cop name? By the way, Walter Huxley, terrible fake name mate.”
“You think I’m a cop?”
“That’s the only explanation. Where else would you have gotten that shirt? No way you could’ve found it in that box because I burned them all. I destroyed everything luna hunny. And if there was anything left, it would’ve only been from what was confiscated by the cops in Paris. What, was that your way of trying to intimidate me, to let me know you were onto me? Then... then that whole act in front of Maloe Melo, what was that about? That’s when I realized you must be some batshit crazy undercover motherfucker.”
“Dug, I’m not a cop.”
“You can stop bullshitting me Walter. You got a fake-sounding name. You wouldn’t do coke with me. You can’t handle your weed. You also just look like a cop. You’re a fucking cop!”
“Look up Walter Huxley or Quinn Quark on your phone and tell me after if you still think I’m a cop. If you’re going to pretend to own a music label, maybe you should pay attention more to what’s happening in music. Also, maybe take it easy on the coke. It’s making you paranoid and sloppy.”
The callbox groaned, followed by a long pause. “No shit mate,” Dug then said after presumably taking out his phone. “Why didn’t you tell me? But if you’re not a cop, then... then... No. You have to be a cop. The shirt, the bar. There’s no way.”
“Dug, for the last time, I am not a cop! How I ended up in that bar with that shirt on on that particular night is just as much a mysterious coincidence to me, and it was just the beginning of a long strange trip since that I will explain once I’m up there. But right now I need your help and my trip is telling me you’re the only person who can help me, just like before when you found me in the urinal. How could I be a cop conning you when you were the person who found me? Don’t you remember?”
“You’re still tripping? And no, not until you just told me. I was facking hammered when I found you, remember? I forgot that’s how we met . . . Maybe I have been doing too much coke lately. Ugh, just did two big rippers before you rang, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping this heroin any. This is some nasty shit mate.”
“Yeah... Ugh. Fack mate. I’m really tweaked. I’m really freaked too. I don’t want her to die. I hate her, but I also love her. I’ll never find another like her. She’s my kind of woman for a man who has no kind. Don’t let her die...”
Dug made a series of garbles before answering. “Um… never mind. But… fack. I do need your help—we need your help. But you gotta promise to keep it to yourself if you value your life, and I sincerely mean that. I’m not somebody to fuck with. And you better not be a coppa.”
“Dug, I swear if I have to tell you one more time—”
The callbox clicked off and the front door buzzed open.
“Come in. It’s unlocked,” Dug said from the other side of his apartment door after Walter knocked. He pushed it open and found her, lying on the floor with her head propped on pillows propped on Dug’s lap. Her eyes were closed and she was a pale shadow of her former self, looking at least fifteen pounds lighter. Her skin had lost all color except for isolated pools of sickly yellow and brown up and down her arms and legs. Walter had seen the same rotted banana peel stains on Squids’s corpse.
“Mags?” Walter gasped.
“You two know each other?” Dug said without looking in his direction. He was running a wet rag up and down Mags’s naked body. He was also naked and had stains on the undersides of his arms too. “Nobody calls her Mags unless they know her personally.”
“Not exactly,” Walter said. “But I’ve gotten to know Shiva personally, and something tells me you know where I can find her.”
Dug sluggishly pushed aside one of the pillows and in his hand was a nine millimeter handgun. With much effort, he then lifted it and pointed to where Walter had been standing, but at that point Walter had ducked behind Dug’s kitchen island counter.
“What the fuck Dug?!” Walter shouted.
“Fuggin coppa!” Dug shouted back. “I fuggin knew it.”
“I’m not a fucking cop! What else do I have to do to prove it?”
“Then... then... who are you working for if you’re not a cop? How do you know Shiva? From back in the States?”
“I met her at Maloe Melo right after I left you.”
Dug gave a weak chuckle. “Sure you did. Well, got news for ya mate. She’s gone. Left Amsterdam long before you got here.”
“Where’d she go?”
“Dug, I know about the cocaine operation. I know the label is just a front for it. I know you ripped off Shiva. And I know you and Mags were together before Shiva. But I don’t care. I only came back to Amsterdam from Switzerland today to find Shiva, because truthfully, I’m in love with her. But also, I think she might be in trouble. I’ve gone to Maloe Melo, the police, but I can’t find her.”
“You really are a nutcase, aren’t you? I told you, she’s gone.”
“What do you mean?”
“No, no. You want my help, you gotta help me first. Go get Mags’s Suboxone, then we’ll talk.”
“Suboxone. She was clean from heroin for over two years before this and has a prescription at her place. It will reverse the effects. Maybe save her. I think she’s OD-ing. She showed up high about a week ago and sucked me right back in. Smack and sex were all we used to do back in Paris. But faaaack. This smack is something else.”
Walter then heard a thud. He peaked from behind the island and noticed Dug had fallen over beside Mags. Stuck in his ass was “the device”. Walter gagged.
“Dug,” he said, “I’m going to stand up. Please don’t shoot me.”
“Ugh...” was Dug’s reply.
Walter stood cautiously, then went over to him. His eyes were glazed, pupils constricted and circling in his sunken sockets.
“Should I call the actual police?” Walter asked. “You both should probably go to a hospital.”
“Fuck the police if you ain’t them. Just go get the Suboxone at her place.”
“Where’s her place?”
Dug hesitated. “If you know Shiva… you should know.”
“La Lune Rouge?” Walter said.
Dug closed his eyes and shook his head yes. “But us locals just call it Hell. It’s not far from here, but you’ll have to take the bike.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a key fob, and tossed it to Walter. “Here’s my fob to get the bike out of the garage. It will also get you in and out of the building.” Dug then crawled to a purse near Mags and began rummaging through it. “Here,” he said extracting another key fob and tossing it to Walter. “Tell them EET FUK at the door and when they ask for your name, tell them Vernon. They’ll take you to a special elevator that will take you to the top floor, and that fob will get you the rest of the way. Not sure where she keeps it, but the loo would be my guess. Do that for me and… and then we’ll talk about Shiva. But first I got to get me head straight . . . And I swear to God, if you ain’t a cop, then you must be His reckoning.”
Dug only managed to slur out half the directions to “Hell” before the coke wore off and the heroin took over, making him completely intelligible before eventually very sleepy. Remembering how Amber first died, Walter rolled Dug and Mags on their sides before leaving.
Although nearby by bike, left to rely on memory and clues from the locals, all of whom were timid about giving out its exact location, finding Hell wasn’t easy. “If you don’t know where ‘Hell’ is,” one local warned him, “you probably don’t belong there.” But finally after passing down an alley he thought he’d been down three times before, he located the nondescript red door, and rang the bell fleshed into the doorframe. Two minutes later the foxlike face of the piano player from earlier greeted him.
“Hello again, Mister Chopin,” she said. “I was not expecting you tonight.”
“Neither was I—well, not exactly . . . Do you have a sister that also works here?”
The hostess sighed. “I did. Did you know her?”
“No. But I saw her here last week.”
The hostess laughed. “Well, I’m sorry to tell you, but that’s impossible. I was the only person here last week. My sister died almost a year ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize . . . Do you remember me then? I came here with Shiva.”
“With who? And no. Hundreds of people come through these doors every week.”
“But you—or whoever was here last week—seemed to know her. Tall, redhead. Plays in a Grateful Dead tribute.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are talking about.”
“Am I at the right place?” Walter said checking his surroundings.
“I don’t know,” the hostess said, “but if you came here on that bicycle, you came at the right time. The Lady always gets her delivery at eleven.”
“You must be new. Yes. The one inside your basket I hope. The Lady will be very hungry. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this bicycle.” Walter opened a compartment hidden in the basket stereo and found a paper bag filled with filled coke vials rubber-banded into bunches like packs of pre-rolled joints.
“Let’s not keep the Lady waiting,” the hostess said. “Password?”
“And here I was expecting you to say Frédéric,” the hostess said smiling. “Yes, Mister Smith. Right on time. Follow me. The Lady will EET you now.”
She opened a door to her right and Walter followed her into a small corridor with another door with a keypad and phone next to it. She picked up the phone and pressed in a passcode, then hung up. Soon after from above, he heard a loud clunk then the whirling of moving chains. About forty-five seconds later he heard another clunk behind the door followed by a loud buzz. The hostess then opened the door and pulled apart manual, antique, elevator doors. Blood-red light came pouring out along with “Station to Station” by David Bowie from a coffin-box-sized lift.
“Your elevator to Hell, Mister Smith,” the hostess said.
“Shouldn’t I be going the other direction?” Walter quipped as he loaded himself into the tiny cage which felt and looked more like an old carnival ride than an elevator.
“Like I haven’t heard that one before,” she said and shut him in.
She closed the door and soon the machinery whirled up again, and after a jerky ride to the top, the elevator opened onto a red-flushed foyer where the music was playing louder. In the foyer were two plush leather armchairs and a couch with a table, and directly across from the elevator, two double doors with a fob sensor next to them. Walter waved the fob Dug had given him over the sensor, and hearing the lock unlatch, he pushed the doors open.
On the other side was a spacious and octagonal bedroom cascaded in gentle blue light with black crush velvet walls. Ringing the room were a myriad of mirrors, each getting a different angle on the elevated stage dead center of the room, throning an oversized bed, low to the ground and wrapped in black satin. In one corner behind the bed stood a half-open wardrobe closet, exhibiting presumably Mags’s tools of the trade: whips, paddles, leather masks, and an assortment of other stainless steel devices similar to the one in Dug’s ass, and in the other corner, a liquor cabinet with two backed barstool chairs.
Closing the doors behind him, Walter found they sealed tightly and the room became dead silent. “Hello?” he said just to affirm he was alone. The velvet walls sopped up his voice. “Hello!” he said louder, but it made no difference.
He then went to the bedroom bathroom, combing every corner and drawer for Mags’s prescription, but he only found condoms and lubes along with what looked to be toiletry supplies for one female person. The only other door in the bedroom went into a large, walk-in closet. Turning on the light and walking inside, he picked up the faint scent of Shiva, and found the source to be a white nightgown. He took it off its hanger and clutched it to his face. A thousand excited memories lit up behind his eyes.
“Where are you?!” he screamed into it.
He then hung the gown back up, and as he did, something fell out of its pocket. He knelt down and found an Ace of Cups tarot card, and after checking his wallet, he realized it was the same tarot card Shiva had given him, or it must’ve been because the Ace of Cups that was in his wallet was now missing.
Adding it to the growing list of strange and unexplainable things, he put the card in his wallet, then returned his attention to a minor separation he noticed at the back of the closet when he was kneeling. Upon further investigation, he discovered the separation was actually part of a crude door cut into the drywall. He pressed it open, but only found an empty crawlspace, the walls of which were riddled with pinholes from décor that must’ve once been tacked to them. Crawling into the crawlspace, the scent became stronger. Shiva must’ve been here at one time.
Continuing to search the bedroom, he at last found the prescription in a drawer of the liquor cabinet along with several empty coke vials. Seeing as he was there to deliver them anyway, he restocked the drawer, emptying the entire paper bag.
“Good,” a voice then said from across the room. Walter looked up frightened, but it was just the hostess.
“Oh, it’s just you,” he said. “How’d you get in here? I didn’t hear the elevator.”
“You can’t hear anything outside this room, and nothing inside this room can be heard outside. But also, there is a secret stair behind the fetish cabinet to the cabaret’s backstage. Not many people know but me. It was sealed in the walls when they put a garbage shoot in . . . I want you to follow me downstairs, then I want you to leave out the backstage exit. Leave the bike here.”
“Dug would kill me. And I didn’t come here just to make a delivery. I also had a pickup.”
“They are already dead. The Suboxone won’t help them now.”
“W-what? How did you know—how do you know?”
“Believe me, I know dead.”
The hostess stepped forward from her shadowy corner near the “fetish cabinet”. As she came closer, however, Walter began to see it wasn’t her. It was the hostess he saw last week, her supposedly dead sister.
“Okay, what is going on?” he said. “Is someone fucking with me? Seriously, what is this? This isn’t funny anymore.”
“Calm down. I’m not the first dead person you have seen, not by far. But don’t bother telling anyone. They won’t believe you. Now let’s go. You need to leave for Paris as soon as possible.”
“Yes. That is where you told Shiva to meet you, isn’t it?”
“Yes of course. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because I needed you here first. But you must go now. You don’t want to be tangled up in what will follow.”
“What will follow?”
“Right now, you. You will follow me downstairs and get the hell out of Hell. After that, it’s Fate’s decision.”
“You mean Beatrice?”
The ghost hostess smirked. “Who’s Beatrice?” she said still smiling.
“I don’t know. Who are you? Really, who are you? And don’t give me the ‘I am no one because I am not one’ spiel.”
“Fine. My name is Maria. But if you really want to know who I am, look behind you.”
Walter turned around and only saw his reflection in a large mirror behind him.
He followed Maria behind the fetish cabinet into the secret door which then led to a spiraled stairwell drilled through eight floors of darkness. Fortunately her voice and a handrail were there to guide him, and the deeper they went, the louder the stage music grew, a strange, organ-grinder-like tune she began singing along to.
Welcome my friend to a place with no life
Where time flays itself out in such vibrant rhyme
The music you hear is your helping guide
Sundered seconds so hard to define
Not of birth or death but of some grand unfolding of time
Hold onto that tether, you don’t want to lose your mind
Scripture becomes universal truth
Perverted and diluted as it flows through the mazes of you
Carving out canyons now crystallized in time
Hold on baby, hold onto that mind
The music then passed overhead right before they hit bottom. It was then Walter realized he wasn’t backstage, but below stage, and Maria was no longer with him.
Feeling his way along the wall for a light switch, he came across a door instead leading to a ramped tunnel at the end of which was the dim outline of a door. He opened it and found two dumpsters in a back alley. Coming out from the alley, he came upon the urinal again, and from there he headed to Dug’s, Suboxone still in his pocket just in case Maria was lying. But when he arrived at the apartment complex, it was surrounded by police tape and onlookers.
“What happened?” Walter asked one of them.
“They say a boyfriend and girlfriend who were running a drug operation were found dead. They think the boyfriend choked after a heroin overdose, and when the girlfriend woke up and found him, she shot herself. The gunshot was what made the neighbors call the police. Crazy world.”
“Yes, crazy world.”
Something in The Sinookas
Walter awoke to the scent of freshly cut timber and pine needles. The ticktock of the train’s wheels hypnotically clapping atop the train tracks had lulled him and Kourtney to sleep, her shoulder serving as his pillow and his head serving as hers during the ride down the mountain. He stayed still not wanting to disturb her.
Outside the window, dewed over from the clouds they had just emerged from, was the rustic village of their Swiss chalet, Lauterbrunnen, a growing nest of pink roofs on an endless throughway of vibrant green. Guarding over the village were the soaring gray limestone cliffs of Lauterbrunnen Valley, a broad, U-shaped valley ploughed into the earth as if dug by a gigantic ice cream scooper, topped with thick, dark forests and braided with veins of whitewater waterfalls draining from the bleach white peaks of the Swiss Alps cutting jaggedly along the sky.
The train had just come from those peaks, or more specifically a glacier saddle between them called Jungfraujoch. At over eleven-thousand feet, the once desolate mountain saddle had been transformed into a haven for tourists seeking a high-altitude adventure without the work thanks to a nine-kilometer railway partially built into the mountains, complete with Europe's highest-altitude post office, several shops and restaurants, an elaborate manmade ice palace, and even ski slopes where Curt, an avid snowboarder, still was.
The three of them had taken the train up at the agonizing hour of six that morning. Walter’s train to Amsterdam tomorrow, however, was leaving even earlier, five-thirty. He still hadn’t told Kourtney yet because he still wasn’t sure if he was going through with it. Had he completely lost his mind? Was he really taking cues from illusions now, or his encounter with “Fate” as she liked to call herself? However, his encounter with Shiva was just as strange and just as well could’ve been an illusion, but at least he had some real proof of that illusion: the Ace of Cups, still safely tucked away in his wallet. But then again, maybe everything since Amsterdam had been imagined, an imagining he was still experiencing. Maybe he never actually made it to Amsterdam. Maybe he lost his mind back in London and that’s where his “real” self was, heavily sedated and strapped to a hospital bed in some psych unit. Maybe Europe had made him lose his mind. That would be the most rational explanation.
However, whether inside his head or not, this was the reality he was dealt and Amsterdam seemed to be the place where he would find out, or if not, hopefully find his way out. At least that’s the impression Fate or Beatrice or whoever’s answer gave him. He had to find out what happened to Shiva, and Dug was somehow at the center of it. But Fate/Beatrice also said divine love was sometimes in the strangest of places, but Walter hoped to God Dug wasn’t what it/she meant by strange.
Speaking of God, of course maybe all this strangeness was him or her or it, but why would God be so concerned with Walter’s affairs when there were so many other affairs he or she or it should be concerned with over his? No, God was only further proof of insanity.
Kourtney awoke and took her neck off Walter’s head. “So beautiful,” she said stretching her arms and looking out the window. “Are you going to the P-Party tonight?” she asked. P was the theme of the night’s costume party, and any extrapolation on what that meant was accepted, but pirate, pimp, and policeman were the most popular picks.
“No,” Walter said. “There’s something I need to do early tomorrow morning. Are you going?”
“What do you think?” she said smiling.
“Didn’t figure you were, but you asked. The parties aren’t as bad as you think.”
“Yes they are. Especially tonight’s. Remember I’ve been on one of these before. At the P-Party on my last tour about a dozen blokes showed up with nothing on, taking P-Party to mean ‘penis’ party. Yeah, not for me. What’s so important to get you up early again tomorrow?”
“Well, I’m still not sure if I’m going through with it.”
“You’re going back to Amsterdam aren’t you?”
“How’d you know?”
“I don’t know. Just sensed something in the sinookas I suppose, like our karass was beginning to wane into its other wampeter. Back in Venice, when we were a part, I just began thinking about how maybe you should go back to Amsterdam. Maybe you should do everything you can while you’re still on the same continent as Shiva—or hopefully you still are. It’s actually why I asked you what you were doing tonight. I wanted to talk to you about it. I think I might’ve been a wrang-wrang in the wrong direction by convincing you to continue this tour.”
Walter laughed. “I see you’ve taken to Cat’s Cradle,” he said. He had given Kourtney the book four days earlier after he had finished reading it. “And apparently you’ve experienced quite the vin-dit. But no Kourtney, you were definitely a wrang-wrang in the right direction. I needed these last few days with you and Curt on tour more than you know. Also, I haven’t told you yet, but I got my sign from Fate, and funny enough, it happened in Venice too.”
“Really? What was it?”
Walter took a few starts before figuring out what to say. “Well...” he said, “even though it really wasn’t, I can only describe it as a sign from God only I would understand—or it could’ve been a psychotic episode. Either way, I’m pretty sure it meant go back to Amsterdam—I think—I hope.”
“Well, as Bokonon says,” Kourtney said, “'peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God’. Maybe you should let God lead the dance.”
“But what is God?”
“God is Love. That’s all God has to be.”
“But what is Love?”
“Love is you. And that’s all Love has to be.”
Walter thought about it. As simple as it was, other than music, it was an argument for God he couldn’t refute. Maybe God did have a place in life.
“Man, you’ve really gone deep into Bokononism,” he said.
“Apparently I have,” Kourtney said. “I’m just as surprised with how much has stuck with me after finishing the book. For a fake religion built on lies it sure speaks a hell of a lot of truth. Maybe Kurt Vonnegut is God or something. Or maybe just the god assigned to you.”
“Would sure explain a hell of a lot . . . Is this elevation making you feel as stoned as me?”
“Would sure explain a hell of a lot.”
They both fell into heavy chuckles, then fell quiet, watching the village slowly grow larger outside the window. “So you’re for sure going back then?” Kourtney asked.
“Well, at this point you’ve convinced me Kurt Vonnegut will have it no other way,” Walter said with a smile that quickly fell away. “However, something in the sinookas is telling me this next leg of my journey is one I have to face alone as much as I want my trusty wrang-wrang with me.”
“I know,” she said. “Something in the sinookas also told me this. Like I said, our karass is waning into its other wampeter, and I believe that wampeter is concerned with finding you true love. Not that Curt and I don’t love you, truly we do, but you know, a duprass only has room for one more, and you’re not going to find your ‘one’ with us two.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t make it any easier leaving you, and by you, I mean especially you. How did I ever get by without a friend like you?”
Kourtney wiped a wayward tear from his face doing her best to contain herself. “Let’s not begin goodbyes just yet,” she said. “Let’s do it somewhere out of the public eye because I know I’ll be a mess. What do you say to another romantic friendship date after dinner tonight? I know a great little lookout point near the chalet that would be great for a smoke sesh and some stargazing.”
At dinner, Walter said goodbye to Curt and explained why in terms only a Bokononist of the same karass would understand, and of course he clearly understood. He too had already sensed something in the sinookas. For everyone else, a little foma was provided about a mix up of flight plans that had Walter leaving out of Amsterdam instead of Paris and it was too late and too expensive to try and change it.
After dinner, while everyone else dressed (and yes in some cases undressed) for the P-Party, Kourtney and Walter found a bottle of wine and some flashlights and headed to an overgrown gravel trail not far from the chalet running alongside one of the valley’s cliffsides. The sky was clear and moonless, encrusted over with stars. In the air, rumblings and mutterings of rushing water from the nearby Lütschine River and the many waterfalls beating the valley walls.
The trail soon began ascending, leading to a rock opening in the cliffside. Inside was a narrow and steep stairwell, and after a long and sharply zigzagging climb, they emerged onto a platform stamped into the rockface behind a gently flowing waterfall. The view was somewhat similar to the one from the train window earlier, except now the valley was only a silhouetted cradle against the shimmering sky, the village looking like a small globule of stars that had dripped down from the Milky Way river crossing overhead. Hanging over the globule was what looked to be a low-flying comet, but in actuality was the spot-lit sprays of a waterfall near the center of town.
“Oh my God,” Walter said walking to the platform edge and feeling the underside of the waterfall.
“Right?” Kourtney said. “Lauterbrunnen was the stop I was looking forward to most. Did you know Tolkien’s inspiration for Rivendell was this valley?”
“The place in Lord of the Rings with all the elves?”
She laughed. “Yes, that place.”
“I can see it. It’s certainly an otherworldly place, the most beautiful place I think I’ve been. And those stars…” he said fanning his hand over them.
“You’re always looking at those stars aren’t you?” she said smiling.
“It’s the closest thing I have to prayer. It gives me perspective on things.”
“So it’s where you talk to God?”
“You mean Kurt Vonnegut?”
They again burst into laughter, their chuckles stretching and contracting against the rock walls and the lapping laughter of the waterfall.
“Well, Vonnegut or not,” Walter said, “God is giving me some good fodder for one hell of a book. Maybe that’s our karass’s other wampeter. It is really why I came on this trip. I just didn’t know every karass has two wampeters. I didn’t know God also wanted me to find true love. I never thought I deserved it.”
“Oh, so every wampeter revolves around you?” Kourtney smiled teasingly. “Your book better have a character based on me.”
“Of course, but she’ll be no substitute for the real thing. However, I guess she’ll have to make due for me until our karass feels the need to wax us back together.”
“Well, something in the sinookas tells me it certainly will, possibly soon. Curt and I are staying in Paris for a week after the tour ends. Promise you’ll come find us if you don’t find a reason to stay in Amsterdam? You already said your plane home takes off from there anyway. Or maybe we can have the best of both worlds and you and Shiva come find us after you find her in Amsterdam?”
“Wouldn’t that be the happy ending? Although it could be just as possible I go all the way to Amsterdam only to discover she won’t leave Mags.”
“Something in the sinookas makes me doubt that, but maybe we should boko-maru so we have Vonnegut on our side for a happy ending. You know how much God loves flattery.”
“Yes, but you also know He ‘never wrote a good play in his life.’”
Again they were overcome with giggles, giggles which only grew from the strange sound of their giggles echoing back at them in their rocky outcropping.
“Do we even need to get stoned with this elevation?” Walter asked still trying to control his laughter.
“No, this is perfect enough. This is as close to heaven as I think you can get. I love you Walter.”
“I love you Kourtney.”
They then shared a long and powerful hug and sob, then laid down on the blanket they brought, took off their shoes and socks, and kissed their naked soles together for their boko-maru, laughing so loudly it turned into snorting that sounded like a foghorn farting as it shot off into the dark down the valley.
Best friends are the best because they are the ones you can be your silliest with, your craziest with, your most pathetic with, your best with, your true self with, even if you can’t always be with them, for time and space has no effect on best friends. True best friends are forever even if those best friends only get the chance to meet once in life . . . or after life.
The Mask Maker
Walking past the polished and posh storefronts along Salizada San Moise, just outside St. Mark’s square, Walter saw her face swimming toward him in the crowded passageway. As it drew closer, however, it subtly shapeshifted, then evaporated like a mirage. There were no cars in Venice. The city’s web of alcoves and narrow footways could never accommodate them. The buildings, many unchanged for hundreds of years, were so close and twisted together the streets were in a constant murk, and shadows can play tricks on the eyes Walter reasoned, because there was no reason to be seeing Amber’s face here.
Before the apparition, his thoughts had been wrapped up again in Amsterdam and whether or not fate was ever going to give him a sign. Although his night there never escaped his mind, it was the first time since St. Goar he’d been truly left alone to reflect on it. Over the past few days he’d been distracted by his deepening friendship with Curt and Kourtney, but also the siblings’ widening divide. The further the trip progressed, the less they wanted to do together, and increasingly he found himself stretched between museums and intellectual ventures with Kourtney during the day, and pubs and nocturnal escapades with Curt in the night, leaving sleep the only time he got to himself, but even that was mostly done with others on the bus.
While Walter hadn’t expected to partake so much in the nighttime revelry, Curt had an almost supernatural, easy-going charisma that made him not only the most popular person on the bus, but at every bar, beerhall, club, or pub they went. Evenings with him always ended in unexpected places with unexpected people, and through him, Walter was again finding his own charisma and confidence he thought he’d lost to Quinn Quark. Also, with the exception of the serviceman, he was discovering no one in their tour group really cared who he’d been before the trip, and those who did felt mostly privileged to party with a former rock star.
But as much as Walter enjoyed and was benefiting from his time with Curt, his time with Kourtney held much more significance. Through her he was discovering a whole new intimacy of friendship and learning to be vulnerable with someone again without worry of judgment or duplicity, and he permitted her the same. Their fucked up childhoods and constantly nagging insecurities and anxieties gave them a lot of common ground, and it seemed when one of them went out of whack, the other always knew how to bring the other back in place. For two people who were loners at heart, it was strange to have a friendship that felt so effortless. But loners aren’t loners so much for the sake of being alone, but being alone with their thoughts, and usually that’s impossible with someone else, but not them. They could spend hours together only speaking with their eyes. If they came across a painting in a museum or an interesting historical fact or artifact, it only took one look to know what the other thought.
Being proud loners though, there was also a sense of guilt about enjoying the company of someone else too much, so after their introductory walking tour of Venice, they decided a day apart was needed, a decision Walter was now greatly regretting. Venice was a living museum and he wanted his museum partner. Thus, after only fifteen minutes of separation, he had gone looking for Kourtney, but so far was only finding ghosts.
Continuing on in his search, he let his gut guide his feet through the twisted streets. Remaining relatively the same for hundreds of years, history bled easily through the skin of the city, and it took no monumental leap of imagination to travel into its past, especially the farther he furthered himself from the crowds, which was surprisingly easy to do in a maze like Venice.
After crossing the Rio di San Moise canal footbridge, he went past the cursed La Fenice, an opera house famous for burning down three times, weaved through progressively tighter streets until finally reaching a deserted dead end. On the wall of a building in front of him, someone had spray-painted I JUST DESIRE TO TOUCH THE SKY. The words captured him, and he stood trapped, trying to translate a meaning, when out of the corner of his eye he saw a phantom flicker. He then turned around, and there she was, Kourtney, contained in a tiny shop window he hadn’t noticed being there before.
Going inside, however, he discovered like Amber’s face, Kourtney’s too evaporated, and in her place was a woman about the same age with bangs, long, dark brown hair, and large, golden eyes, made more striking by her black eyeliner. She wore a bright red headwrap, not unsimilar to a pirate or gypsy, which was the same color as the lipstick on her full and pouty lips. The body beneath was gracefully drawn-out like a dancer’s, draped in a tight-fitting black tank top and a light and flowing, tan bohemian dress.
“Buon pomeriggio signore,” she said smiling. “You look like a man in search of himself. What identity would you like to try on today?”
“Huh?” Walter said.
“What kind of mask were you interested in?”
“Oh,” he said noticing the shop he walked into was a mask shop. All around, on the walls, cluttering the shelves, and hanging from the ceiling, were ornate carnival masks, some with long noses, others adorned with stunning arrays of feathers, beads, and gems.
“Actually, I am in need of a mask,” he replied. Contiki had a themed party almost every night and for Venice it was a masquerade ball. “However,” he said examining a price tag of a mask near him, “these masks might be out of my price range.”
“That’s okay. I don’t charge to try them on, and I do have some more reasonable options in the back. But there is a mask I think would look very handsome on you. I made it with a face like yours in mind.”
“You made all these masks?”
“I am the mask maker. Beatrice Mezzosesso. And you are?”
“Walter Huxley. Pleasure to meet you.”
“No, no. The pleasure is mine, that is if you don’t mind trying on the mask?
“Perfetto. Come signore, have a seat here,” she said pulling a chair in front of an antique-looking full body mirror. As he sat, her long fingers felt over the contours of his head, face, and neck like a tailor sizing someone for a fitting. “Oh yes,” she said staring him straight in the eyes, “I’ve been waiting a long time for you.”
She then danced more than walked across the small store in elegant, metered movements to some waltz she was lightly humming. She went to a shelf holding several wood and glass display boxes and took one down made of expensive-looking mahogany with a red satin bedding. She opened it and removed a bone-colored mask with a strong brow and aquiline nose in a stern facial expression. The mouth had no opening but the chin protruded forward far enough to fit a hand in for eating and drinking. She then went to what looked to be her workbench, selected a spool of thick black ribbon and measured a strand from memory. With two quick snips, she then cut what she measured into two equal strips which she threaded through holes on the side of the mask. She then returned to Walter and placed the mask on him from behind, tying the ribbon snuggly. The mask clung to his face as if it had been custom made.
“Yes,” Beatrice said staring into the mask’s eye sockets. “I knew it. Just perfect . . . You came in here searching for something, didn’t you Signore Huxley?”
“Someone actually,” Walter replied. “I thought you were them, but I was mistaken.”
“Yes, looks can be deceiving, but often what you need is not what you were thinking.”
He looked at her funny. She gave him a puckish smile.
“You fell in love with someone you weren’t supposed to,” she said, “or more so they weren’t supposed to have fallen in love with you, and now it’s cost them their life.”
“Do you know me?” Walter asked.
She smiled again. “That depends on your definition of knowing,” she replied. “A face can tell me a lot about what I need to know about someone, and yours has death and love written all over it. That’s why I chose the death mask of the world’s greatest lover for you. Don’t you know who you are?” she said pointing to the mirror. She then leaned into his ear and said in a whispered scream, “Casanova!”
Walter laughed awkwardly. “You’re funny,” he said. “And a good salesperson. But seriously, you read the Rolling Stone article about me or something, right? Yep, you got me. Quinn Quark, the new Casanova I guess.”
“No, I don’t have you yet…” Beatrice said picking up the spool of thick black ribbon again and cutting another long piece. She then stood behind him and gently wrapped it around his neck, then pulled it down his chest, making his hair and nipples stand on end. He gasped and his breath deepened while his eyes closed in arousal. Then in a flash of an instant she had his wrists cuffed behind the chair with the ribbon. “…but now I do,” she said.
Walter bucked up in surprise, but Beatrice pushed him back into the chair with the weight of her body. Straddling over him, her hand then reached under the mask’s protruding chin and softly slapped him.
“No more games Giacomo, Le Chevalier de Seingalt,” she said. “I saw you in there peering at me through this man’s eyes. But who’s in there with you? So many voices. You must be a very troubled man Signore Huxley.”
“Huh?” Walter said, slightly afraid and still slightly aroused. “I know the article made me out to be a womanizer, and maybe there was some truth to that, but seriously, I’m no Casanova. Not even close.”
Beatrice chuckled. “You still don’t understand,” she said. “Casanova! He is inside you. All he needed was a body and yours is an open gate for the spirit world to communicate. You are living amongst the dead, and the dead can whisper through you. You must know this. Haven’t you ever felt like the voices in your head aren’t your own?”
“Many times actually. But I’ve got a rather eccentric imagination I don’t always trust.”
“Well, what if I told you your body is nothing but a fleshly capsule Casanova is trying to make love with?”
She chuckled again. “Oh how little you’ve learned in almost three hundred years Casanova,” she said. “Don’t you ever want to find divine love? Don’t you ever want to free your name of womanizer and instead be recognized for the great writer and mind you were? Or will your soul always be caught in the powerful tempest of your lust?”
“I’m so lost,” Walter said shaking his head.
“Just let go and play along,” she whispered into his ear.
Certain she was crazy, he decided to play along, partly out of fear, partly because he was still turned on, partly because he was also crazy. And the more he thought about it, maybe Casanova’s ghost was inside him.
“Okay,” he said. “Um… what do you mean someone fell in love with me that wasn’t supposed to and now it’s cost them their life?”
“The answer is right in front of you,” she said pointing at herself in the mirror.
“You?” he asked.
She smirked. “Not exactly, but you’re getting closer.”
“Then why do I feel more lost?”
“Just think about it.”
Beatrice shrugged and smiled, but said nothing.
“Well either way,” Walter said to the mirror, “if Amber is listening, she should know she did nothing wrong by falling in love with me. It was all my fault. I gave up on someone who really could’ve been my ‘one’. I just thought I was looking for perfect, but I was too blind, too selfish to see I didn’t need perfect. I needed love. And no doubt, with the exception of my grandmother, nobody loved and believed in me more than you, yet how little belief and true love I gave you.”
Tears began dropping from beneath the mask onto his lap. “Maybe this was why you gave me this trip,” he went on, “to understand your suffering; to find love, then have it violently ripped away. I used your love and offered hardly any in return because I was too busy loving myself. I’m so sorry Amber. I’m so sorry. I don’t deserve to find love. I had it and threw it away because I didn’t know what I was looking for. I was too in love with myself.”
Beatrice put a hand on Walter’s shoulder. She then removed the mask and unbound his wrists. His face was a glazed doughnut of tears and sweat.
“No,” she said somberly, “you deserve to find love. Everyone does. But first, you need to forgive yourself, but before you can, there’s someone else who needs forgiveness, someone very much a part of you whether you want them to be or not . . . your father.”
“Because if he dies unforgiven you will never forgive yourself. Your guilt will outlast your hate. Didn’t Squids teach you that? My father was an alcoholic too and the last thing I told him before he died was I hate you and I want you to die. But I was just an angry teenager, and his alcoholism had hurt me a lot. But now that time has dulled some of that anger, I can see he did love me in many moments outside his drinking. He may not have been the greatest father, but at least he was more of a father than the father he never knew. At least he tried to be a father, and so did your father. He fucked up in a fuckup nobody would know exactly how to fix, a fuckup of his own doing, but nevertheless, he was younger than you are now when it happened, and look how much you still fuck up.”
“Yes, but fucking up being a father is much different,” Walter retorted. “A father doesn’t prioritize the needs of a monster over his own son. A father doesn’t allow his son to be treated like an unwanted pest for the first ten years of his life. Yes, ultimately he did leave that monster for me, but he told me in the end how much I was really worth to him, about three rum bottles. He deserves to die unforgiven. Fuck him.”
“Forgive him,” Beatrice commanded. “Forgive him and your stepmother if you ever want to be forgiven yourself; if you ever want to know divine love.”
“Who introduced you to Metallica then took you to your first concert ever, a Metallica concert?”
It was his father but Walter stayed silent.
“Who taught you how to tie your shoes,” she continued, “and is the reason why you still bunny ear instead of loop and swoop? Who taught you the habit of ironing your clothes, how to whistle, how to blow a bubblegum bubble?”
He suddenly remembered it was his stepmother. There had been some moments when she was more mother than monster in the beginning. Agape, Walter turned to Beatrice.
“Who are you, really?” he asked.
“Okay, fine. I suppose there were some moments when they attempted to care, especially in the beginning before the drinking fully took hold . . . And I suppose you’re right. There’s no way to forgive myself without forgiving them because a part of me is them . . . I forgive you Dad. I forgive you L-L-Lilith.”
Walter shuttered. He hadn’t uttered his stepmother’s name in over fifteen years. Once she stopped calling him by name, it gave him a reason to do the same, and his names for her were just as bad if not worse as hers for him: bitch, cunt, the pretty witch, mother monster. At times, he really did everything he could to antagonize not only her hatred for him, but her alcoholism. Now fault didn’t seem as easy to place. But blame is hardly ever shared alone and sometimes just as much in our control as fate. What we do have control over, however, is forgiveness.
“I forgive you,” Walter continued. “I forgive you!”
“You are forgiven,” Beatrice said, and immediately after a weight seemed to lift from his chest, a burden he’d grown so used to carrying he thought it was a part of him. Looking into her eyes with awe, he saw someone he knew he knew but he couldn’t explain why.
“Now will you tell me who you are,” he asked, “who you really are?”
“I am no one because I am not one,” she replied still transfixed on the mirror. “However, you can call me Fate if you would like. But truthfully, I’m just someone who wants to help you find divine love. However clever it’s been disguised, it is waiting for you.”
“A place only you can reach within your heart, but I’m here to take you to the next part. But we must go soon. Sunset is approaching.” She then reattached the mask to Walter’s face. “Casanova must also come along though. And masks must stay on until I tell you to take them off. If we’re not careful, it could cost us our lives also.”
After masking herself in a gold, long-beaked “plague doctor” mask, Beatrice put on a black, full-body, hooded robe and had Walter do the same. She then took his hand and told him, “Don’t let go,” and led him out of the shop to a nearby private dock on the Grand Canal. There, a gondolier in a black toga she addressed as Marcus was waiting, standing atop an all-black, dragon-looking gondola with an enclosed cabin, or what Beatrice called a “felze”. Apparently almost all gondolas used to have felzes before their primary purpose was toting around tourists. Inside the red velvet-lined felze, a bottle of wine and a bucket of oysters were waiting for them.
“Is this gondola always stocked with oysters and wine?” Walter asked after they sat and Beatrice poured him a glass.
“Oh yes,” she said. “A gondola ride wouldn’t be complete without them.”
“Well, santé,” Walter said taking the glass, then began removing his mask.
“No, no,” Beatrice said stopping him. “The mask must stay on, even while you eat and drink. That is what the mask is designed for.”
“But you can’t eat or drink with your mask.”
“Because this wine and food isn’t for me, it’s for you, Casanova.”
“But what if you’re trying to poison me?”
“Well I doubt it will make a difference. You’ve been dead for over two hundred years.”
After departing from the dock, Beatrice pulled open one of the curtained windows. “Let us begin,” she said. “Do you recognize that palazzo out there?” She pointed to a three-story, cream-colored palace on the canal.
“Should I?” Walter asked, still confused as to who he was supposed to be.
“That is the Palazzo Malipiero, former home of Senator Alvise Malipiero, and site of your first seduction. The senator took you in as a fifteen-year-old protégé and taught you all the customs of high society until you were caught ‘exploring the differences between bodies’ with his seventeen-year-old love interest and he expelled you out of the house…”
As they pushed down the Grand Canal, Beatrice continued filling Walter in on landmarks and transgressions of his possessor’s life until reaching the Rialto Bridge where they turned around.
“More wine signore?” Beatrice said, pouring without permission.
“I guess so,” Walter replied amused and red-lipped beneath his mask. She’d already emptied half a bottle into him and mouth-fed him a dozen or so oysters. He’d never felt more lavished on in his life.
Coming out of the Grand Canal and skirting along the Venetian coast, lined with more cream-colored palazzos that were turning pink in the twilight light, Beatrice shouted out the window, “Marcus, prendere noi sotto il Ponte dei Sospiri !”
“Si mama. Summum virtutum.”
“Sunset is coming,” she said to Walter, aka Casanova. “Our date with fate is almost here.”
Turning into the Rio del Palazzo canal, they sailed under the people-packed Ponte della Paglia footbridge, then approached another much higher, ivory-white and ornately-decorated footbridge connecting two buildings.
“The Bridge of Sighs...” Beatrice said pointing to it as the boat coasted beneath it, joining a hoard of other gondolas, “...our final destination and one of the most famous sights in all of Venice. It connects the interrogation rooms in the Doge's Palace to the palace prison. And according to legend, as prisoners would cross, they would look out onto beautiful Venice one last time and ‘sigh’ before being taken to their cells. In 1755, arrested for blasphemy, freemasonry, magic, and of course fornication, you yourself walked across this bridge Casanova. But instead of being put in the regular prison cells, you were instead held in a collection of cells called ‘The Leads’ directly beneath the palace roof. Because the roof was lined with lead slabs, these cells were very hot in the summer and ice-cold in the winter, and also thought to be inescapable. But on the night of the 31st of October 1756, you proved that to be untrue by prying off one of the slabs and escaping through the roof in a tale that would later become one of your bestsellers.
“You then fled to Paris where you would later make a fortune by inventing the first state lottery, a fortune which would be wasted away like all your fortunes, to gambling. But being a prolific polymath, you always managed to climb your way back into status and wealth through a variety of occupations and sometimes questionable ventures. In your seventy-three years alive, you were an abbot, lawyer, officer in the Venetian army, theater violinist, diplomat, mathematician, spy, alchemist, Freemason, cardsharp, magician, faith healer, actor, a famous playwright, duelist, physician, and librarian. You were fluent in Italian, French, Latin, and Greek, and proficient in German, English, and Russian. You discussed religion and philosophy with Voltaire, powered flight with Ben Franklin, taxation with Fredrick the Great, and bringing the Russian calendar in sync with the rest of Europe with Catherine the Great. You were also good friends with Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s favorite librettist, and may have served as the inspiration for Don Giovanni, possibly even writing some of it yourself. You wrote forty-two books which included a history of Poland and the Venetian government, a modern Italian translation of Homer’s Iliad, a five-volume science-fiction novel, Isocameron, which predicted the motorcar, airplane, and television, and of course your twelve-volume, thirty-five-hundred-page autobiography, Histoire de ma vie, which you are most famous and infamous for.
“Casanova, you could have been an Enlightenment icon had you not let lust get the best of you. But you always blamed your insatiable sex drive on your insatiable curiosity for human nature, reasoning the bedroom offered no better view into it. Old, young, fat, skinny, royals, nobles, nuns, slaves, whores, virgins, even a few men and transvestites, you bed them all. But they weren’t all merely conquests. You actually fell in love quite easily and often. You liked to satisfy and be satisfied intellectually as well as sexually by your partners, and in a time when women were second-class citizens, you saw them as equals. You were attentive and appreciative in your lovemaking, and at times, supported your lovers financially and became a lifetime confidant.
“However Casanova, your name didn’t become synonymous with womanizer by accident. Some of your most notorious exploits include: losing your virginity to two sisters at the same time; bedding and having a child with a castrato singer whom was thought to be a boy, but was in fact a girl using a fake penis; having a ménage à trois with two nuns; sleeping with five sisters in exchange for saving their mother from financial ruin; and probably your most repulsive achievement, almost marrying your own daughter whom you unknowingly conceived with a former lover, only to later bed her and her mother at the same time, although you did say you left your virgin daughter ‘intact’ for whatever that’s worth.
“Casanova, you stand guilty of gluttonous lust, a lust whose winds have reigned over you for nearly three centuries. But now you have an opportunity to finally escape the slavery of your lust, to find divine love, what you always sought but never found in life. If you accept this invitation, kiss me at sunset and your true love will be revealed . . . The time is now,” she said touching Walter.
“Time for what?” he said confused.
“To take off your mask and kiss me, that is if you’re ready. Love isn’t always who you think it should be. Once in a while it’s in the strangest of places.”
Walter’s head turned sideways pondering who was really speaking behind that golden bird beak.
“I’m not kissing you until you tell me who you really are and what’s really going on,” he said. “Plus, I heard being granted eternal love by kissing someone at sunset under the Bridge of Sighs was just some bullshit legend told to tourists.”
“I told you already, you can call me Fate. As far as who I really am, you can only discover that by taking off my mask. But yours has to come off first.”
“Fine,” he said and reached behind his head and removed the mask. Beatrice gasped behind her beak.
“What?” he asked.
“It’s not for your knowing, just as what you see when you take off my mask is not for my knowing.”
Slightly trembling, his hands removed her mask only to discover Beatrice grinning. Although a part of him wished for Shiva, he was also relieved reality was behaving as it should. Besides, Beatrice really was beautiful, a beauty he could stand for an eternity if that’s what it meant. But truthfully, he had no clue what anything meant anymore.
He then noticed a large gap between her front teeth he didn’t remember seeing before, but she hadn’t spent a lot of time full-teeth grinning before then either. Regardless, he leaned forward and lips met, then tongues began dancing until something bristly began tickling his upper lip. He opened his eyes to find Beatrice had grown a mustache. Then as his eyes adjusted, he realized it wasn’t Beatrice behind that mustache. It was Dug.
“Ah!” Walter screamed and pushed Dug back into the seat across from him, but by then he had already morphed back into Beatrice. “Ah! Ah! Ah!” Walter kept screaming.
“You didn’t like what you saw I see,” Beatrice said straightening herself out after being thrown.
“I’m sorry. No, not at all what I was expecting.”
“Often divine love isn’t what you expect.”
“But you don’t understand. I saw—” She covered his mouth.
“I told you,” she said, “what you saw is not for my knowing, or anyone else’s knowing. You must keep it to yourself and only to yourself, otherwise neither of us will find divine love. And believe me, I’ve been waiting a long time. Centuries you could say.”
“Wait, are you—”
She covered his mouth again and smiled. She then brought her index finger to her lips and winked.
“Just keep our little adventure today to yourself,” she said. “It’s in your best interest and mine. Not like anyone will believe you anyway.”
Back at the boat dock, Walter and Beatrice shared one last kiss, this time with no mustache, before she stepped back onto the boat. She said there was somewhere she needed to be soon, and so did he. His ferry back to the Italian mainland where he and his fellow Contikians were camped in a village of mobile home trailers was departing shortly.
As the gondola withdrew into the Venetian Lagoon, from the bow of the black dragon, Casanova’s death mask in one hand, the other waving goodbye and blowing him kisses, Beatrice shrank into the darkening horizon until at last she touched the sky and disappeared into it.
I Heard My Soul Singing Behind a Leaf
“Now repeat after me, zum wohl,” their tour group’s German sommelier said as he raised up a shot glass of wine at the other end of the long, candle-laden table.
“Zum wohl,” everyone repeated.
“Zis is zee proper way to toast zee wine. It means to good health and zee way it has been done for over four hundred years in zis wine cellar,” he said gesturing to the underground cylindrical chamber lined with oversized wine barrels and soft lighting.
From the low chatter patting the cellar walls it seemed Amsterdam had made friends of everyone in Walter’s absence. Even Curt and Kourtney had new friends they were conversing with instead of him since he had gone out of his way to sequester himself from them since boarding the bus earlier that day. Although they tried to talked to him, he told them he was too tired, then pretended to sleep or actually slept with his earbuds in for the entirety of the trip from Amsterdam to St. Goar. He just needed time to find words again. Everything felt different about himself. Not so much he’d been changed, but exposed, and someone forgot to stitch the skin back on. Now it was “real life” that felt like a dream, while his night with Shiva felt like the first time he’d actually been living. There seemed no point to the trip now. It wasn’t about writing a book, paying tribute to Amber, or any of the reasons he thought he came on this trip for. The reason was her.
So why didn’t he go on living then instead of choosing to remain dead by continuing this bus tour? Why didn’t he turn himself into the police to be with her instead of here where it seemed no one cared any differently if he was there or not? Even Curt and Kourtney had moved on from him. But who could blame them for not wanting to be around someone they were constantly having to talk off ledges? Maybe it was time Walter did the world a favor and just jumped. The universe had given him his one opportunity for love and he walked away because he was afraid. He was a coward. He was a sad and pathetic coward no one wanted to be around. The world was tired of Walter Huxley and his whining. He should just go down to the river, walk in and drown.
Silently boiling over inside, Walter excused himself to go to the restroom, but instead went upstairs and out the cellar door, toward the river.
From the darkness of the cellar, Walter emerged into twilight light atop one of the many steep and narrow brick roads of the small German town of St. Goar. Located in the lush and historic Upper Middle Rhine Valley, the surrounding slopes were dotted with medieval castles and vineyards, and the town itself kept a comparable medieval, gothic character. The streets were silent and vacated being almost nine in the evening before the Corpus Christi holiday. All the shops were closed, and even most of the houses he passed on his way to the river were shuttered and abandoned as much of the citizenry had left town.
Upon reaching the river bank, Walter hiked his pants up and waded into the water. In front of him, passing cargo ships plunged in and out of the setting sun wedging itself into the wide river gulch, spilling its blood-orange innards over the storied and fertile hills that had been battled over since the time of the Romans. Momentarily forgetting his present-day woes in imaginations of the past, Walter stayed standing in the river until it swallowed the sun whole. Then when the stars began opening their eyes, he returned to the river shore to ruminate in them as it’d been a long time since he could see and communicate with so many. But as his eyes adjusted to the light of the dark diamond sea, he noticed he was not alone in his stargazing. Up on a grassy knoll just adjacent to him was Kourtney.
“I was wondering when you were going to notice me,” she said as Walter walked over and sat beside her.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“Oh about as long as you. I followed you to make sure you weren’t going to drown yourself.”
He laughed. “How’d you know?”
“Happy people don’t isolate themselves from their friends all day, suicidal people do. But furthermore, last night you told me you were going to the ‘restroom’ then disappeared for the entire night only to reappear on the bus today a completely different person. So either the real Walter got abducted by aliens last night and you were coming down here to go back to your spaceship, or, by the look on your face when you left, you were coming down here to drown yourself. Either way, I’m not letting you out of my sight again until I find out what happened last night, because obviously something happened last night.”
Walter took a few moments before responding. “Yes,” he said, “a lot happened last night, so much so I’m still trying to tally it all up and that’s why I haven’t said anything. And I'm not really suicidal, I just sometimes need to idle insignificantly in suicide’s waters to soothe the desire. That’s why I came down to the river, to soak in a little perception and find an explanation for what happened last night, because to be honest, it all still feels unexplainable.”
“And the soak didn’t help?”
“I no longer feel like killing myself, however, as far as finding an explanation, no. I was too distracted by that sunset to think about last night, which is probably good because I’ve been thinking and worrying about last night all day. That might’ve been the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen.”
“And to think we had it all to ourselves.”
“Where’s everyone else?”
“At the hostel’s pub. It’s the only place open in town. Don’t know how they could be though with this on our doorstep. Plus, this is a lot better view to drink to,” she said holding up a bottle of the town’s exclusive ice wine their sommelier had been pushing during their tasting.
“Curt too?” Walter asked.
“Yeah. And to be honest, I needed a little break from him anyhow. Not that we’re not getting along, I’m just used to being alone more, where he likes to always be in on the action. While we might be brother and sister, I’m discovering we’re also very different people. Anyway...” she held out the bottle to him, “...if a soak in the river didn’t help find an explanation, maybe a soak in this wine bottle can. Care to split it and talk last night over with me? Two heads are better than one you know. Also I restocked on joints in Amsterdam.” She then reached into her jacket pocket and handed him one.
“You always know the way to my heart Kourtney,” Walter said smiling as he took it. “And I suppose talking to someone is probably a better way of going about it.”
“Good,” she said as she began uncorking the wine. “Hopefully you’re okay with drinking a sixty-euro bottle of wine straight from the spout though. I didn’t bring glasses. Wine’s more about who than what you drink it with anyway.”
“Zum wohl to that,” Walter said lighting the joint, then taking a hit before passing it to Kourtney in exchange for the bottle.
“So...” she said inhaling a toke then exhaling it out, “...what the hell happened last night? Curt and I were really worried this morning when no one had heard from you, especially since we ate all those hash brownies we didn’t know were hash brownies. But after that Flugel stuff the boat captain gave us, we all kind of blacked out.”
“Yeah from the canal cruise. You really don’t remember? Wow, you were as fucked up as you looked. We just thought you were joking.”
“I kind of remember the canal cruise now that you mention it. We went to a sex show after, right?”
“Yeah, where you ate that banana.”
“Yes, I definitely remember the banana. But everything after is a blank until I came to at some rave.”
“Walter! We were just a floor above the rave. Remember we went to that three-story club with a rave on the first floor, a rock club on the second, and a hip-hop club on the third? That’s where you said you had to use the ‘restroom’ then just disappeared. But you were just downstairs from us.”
“I don’t remember any rock club, but I was looking for a restroom when I came to, however, security kicked me out before I could find one.”
“You got kicked out? For what?”
Walter chuckled. “Um, pulling my dick out on the dancefloor,” he said, “but there’s much more to it than that...”
“Holy shit,” Kourtney said after Walter spilled all the beans of the evening, every event, feeling, and fear. “That’s one hell of a story and night. And you have no way of getting ahold of Shiva? Not even Facebook?”
“She’s not on any social media,” he said. “She has to keep a low profile since she’s an illegal alien. All she had was a burner phone which I stupidly never got the number to . . . I have to go back to Amsterdam. I’m going to ask Anna tomorrow if there’s any way I can hitch a ride on another bus or take a train back. I’m not supposed to be here. There’s no reason for me to continue this trip.”
“Well, hold on. Don’t throw away the trip just yet. I mean, she could be getting deported as we speak. Then instead of being across an ocean from you, she’ll only be across a state once you’re back home. Maybe just wait until then to find her. The internet’s a lot better place to find people than IRL anyway. It’s where I found my brother. Do you really think going back to Amsterdam and turning yourself into the police is a good idea? What if you don’t find her, or even worse you get jailed and miss your flight home?”
“I know, I know, but something’s just telling me to go back. And as much as I never trusted gut feelings before, as I said, with her everything is different. I don’t know how to explain it. As much as I thought people just brainwash themselves into thinking someone’s ‘the one’, I totally believe it now.”
“What?” Walter asked.
“It’s just obvious you’ve never really been in love then, otherwise you’d know ‘the one’ really is bullshit. No one is meant for each other. Only in poetry is love undyingly perfect. In the real world it’s extremely complicated, full of sacrifices, and most of the time romanceless, but that’s how it makes us better people.”
“Well, when you first fall in love with someone, all you see is a romanticized version of who they really are; you see their best qualities first. It takes time to chip away at this façade and see the real, imperfect person beneath, but that’s when love’s magic really starts to work. You’re going to have to figure out how to deal with someone who’s not completely compatible with you sexually, emotionally, and/or philosophically, and they’ll have to do the same of you. But this friction is what strengthens and transforms you both into something closer to those idealized versions of yourselves you both initially fell in love with, because ideally, you both don’t want to let the other person down. Granted, there will be certain flaws you’ll have to accept, and you’ll need to figure out what and how many flaws are worth the price of love, but as weird as it sounds, balanced friction really is true love.”
“Sounds like you speak from experience,” Walter said.
“Not exactly, but I might’ve let a few good ones get away because I thought I was looking for ‘the one’. Strangely, it’s actually been getting to know my brother that’s been the biggest reminder love is about compromise. Although I’m annoyed with him right now, he has been helping me come out of my shell more during this trip. But I guess what I’m trying to say is love is not a one shot thing. Life is filled with many shots at love. What’s more important is knowing where to aim. Not to say Shiva won’t be your ‘one’ and isn’t worth fighting for, but I guarantee you another Shiva will eventually come along if it’s not her. Besides, if she really is ‘the one’ and it’s really fate that’s guiding your destiny, it will let you know if you should go back. Until then, I think you should just get some good sleep tonight and enjoy this trip a little. After all, we’re only on the second stop of the tour.”
“You’re right . . . I guess to fate then,” Walter said and took a swig of the bottle before handing it to Kourtney.
“To fate,” she said taking a drink then putting an arm around him. “But maybe I’m being a little selfish too because I know I’d miss you terribly if you left.”
“Really? Someone you’re constantly having to talk off ledges?”
“Well, it’s better than having a boring friend. And talking to you has made me forget about my problems with my brother. So in some way, without even trying, you also talked me off a ledge—or maybe just a small mound. But regardless, friends like that are hard to come by because you can’t force that type of chemistry.”
“Well, I think the wine deserves some credit too...” Walter said shaking the nearly empty bottle, “...but I must be the luckiest person in the world then to have found you Kourtney.” He started to put his arm around her, but hesitated. “And uh... I meant that in the most strictly platonic way.”
She laughed. “I know that Walter,” she said pulling his arm around her. They then fell back into the grass and rested their heads upon each other. “But it is really romantic though, isn’t it?” she said.
“This: the wine, the stars, the castles glowing like candles around us.”
“Yes, I suppose it is. Too bad it’s being wasted on us though.”
“Why? Romance can be just as equally appreciated between friends. At least there’s someone to share it with. That’s the most depressing part of being alone. Life’s no different than a memory and you can’t share a memory with anyone but yourself, just like you can’t share last night with anyone but Shiva. That’s probably why you feel so crazy. The only person who can confirm last night wasn’t just in your head is now gone. But at least you know tonight will never be just a memory.” She kissed him on the cheek. “I love you Walter.”
He kissed her on the cheek back. “I love you too Kourtney. What I did to deserve your love I’ll never know, but I guess someone is still looking out for me.”
For the first time in his life Walter was happy to see morning. Not even his less than three hours of sleep phased him.
The horizon of consciousness came at what would usually be the godawful hour of eight a.m. to the sound of light rain drumming on the skylight then the sight of her red hair resting upon the pillow beside him. Whether the color was natural or not, he didn’t care, it was the most beautiful red he’d ever seen because he’d only seen it in a dream. But his raw lips and aching muscles were a testament this red was in fact a real color of life and the dancing they made until the moon met the first rays of sunlight. But then real also were his feelings and the evening which defeated his supposedly superior powers of reasoning.
But no, Walter reminded himself, your powers of reasoning are under slept and heavily intoxicated by dopamine from all that dancing last night. This feeling of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place will pass.
But then the red hair turned around and her still sleeping face made all the pieces fall right back.
For the next few minutes all Walter could do was stare at this puzzle in the face, this puzzle he’d known for less than one evening, an evening he still couldn’t remember beginning only being dropped into as an entangled electron coming into being. He saw so much of himself mirrored in her, like two unknown hemispheres of the same earth that could now never be independent of each other. But the reflection wasn’t at all what he was expecting. He never thought love would be a tarot-card-reading hippie. But somehow too, it made perfect sense.
Perfect sense? . . . Oh my God, I’ve become Billie.
“Whatta ya looking at creep?” Shiva said with her eyes still seemingly closed. She then opened them and began laughing, the same musical laugh that had sound-tracked his dream. “Did you even sleep,” she asked, “or were you afraid you’d wake up and lose me?”
“No,” he said, “I slept and woke up and you’re still here. So I guess last night wasn’t a dream. Unless dreams leave love bites.” He showed her the inside of his bruised lower lip. She then peeled her lip and he saw hers looked the same. They both laughed.
“No sir,” she said, “only flesh and blood. But I guess I was appraising the validity of yours also. It would’ve been lonely this morning with only a figment of my subconscious to warm me.” She snuggled her flesh and blood closer to his beneath the blankets. “Bodies are much warmer in the morning than dreams.”
“But whose body’s going to keep you warm after this dream ends?” Shiva looked at him confused. “Or did you forget I’m on a bus tour that leaves at two today?”
“Oh, no,” she said, but looking as if she did. “It... it just felt so far away last night. The night always seems like it can stretch forever and it always catches you off guard when it doesn’t.”
“Almost like a dream.”
“Yes,” she said smiling, “especially a dream that keeps you so busy dancing you forget about the time . . . What’s your next stop?”
“A small town in the Rhineland called St. Goar, then Munich, Austria, Venice, Switzerland, and Paris.”
“Sounds like an amazing trip. What do you have planned?”
“Other than visiting some famous headstones in Paris, not much. Contiki plans everything for you.”
“Let me guess... Descartes obviously. Voltaire, Jim Morrison possibly?”
Walter smiled and shook his head. “How well you’ve gotten to know me in our little time together,” he said.
They were silent for a moment while their eyes played a brief game of tag and their smiles hide and seek.
“Well,” Shiva said, “tell Jim I said hi. His grave was the first place I went when I went to Paris for the first time. I was madly in love with him as a teenager. He was my gateway to poetry.”
“Are you sure ‘hi’ is all you want to say then?”
“No, also tell him this...” Her lips sealed to his and their torsos imitated, arms and legs knotting around one another as if trying to stem the flow of their time left together. But the harder they pressed, the more time had something to measure itself against inside their chests as their hearts hammered the bars of their ribcages.
“I’m sure he would much rather hear that from you,” Walter’s heart spoke out loud after their kiss withdrew. “Let’s go to Paris and tell Jim hi together. Fuck my bus tour. With the exception of two people, I wasn’t a big fan anyway.”
She said nothing, but in her eyes a war of words could be seen.
“I’m sorry if that sounded crazy,” Walter apologized for his heart’s behavior.
“No...” she replied, now unable to look him in the eye. Her body also loosened its grip around him. “It sounds wonderful,” she said, “but I’d hate for you to do that for me.”
“Well, I hate the thought I’m going to have to say goodbye to you in less than six hours,” Walter’s heart continued in its ways. “I’m sorry again if I sound crazy, but how am I supposed to just walk away from the person every sign in the universe is telling me to stay with? I mean, you’re the only reason why I’m suddenly seeing reason in signs now. I could rationalize everything before you, but suddenly my world makes no sense because of you, and nothing draws me in more than a seemingly unsolvable puzzle.”
She became even more uncomfortable, her body continuing to unfasten and separate from his.
Shut up Heart! Walter begged from the chair he was tied to inside his head. Shut up! You’re going to spoil love like you always do by speaking too soon.
“Well...” Shiva said, “seemingly unsolvable puzzles can also be traps in disguise . . . Walter, there’s something I’ve been dancing around that I need to tell you. Mags isn’t just my best friend and roommate, she’s my girlfriend.”
He shuttered and sharply turned his head away with his eyes closed as if a landmine had exploded. He should’ve known better than to follow his heart into no man’s land.
“W-Why... why didn’t you tell me?” he asked doing his best to cover his wounds.
“Because I didn’t think I would have to when I first met you,” she said, her body clinging back to his to calm his shaking. “Mags and I have always had an open relationship, but as of recent it’s been increasingly open and you’re not the first stranger I’ve taken to La Lune Rouge and spent the night ‘dancing’ with lately. But obviously you’re no ordinary stranger. You’re the first and only person I’ve ever sung ‘Harvest Moon’ to because I was actually saving it for my future husband or wife. But now my guinea pig will forever have that song, along with the only tarot card I’ve ever given away from my mother’s deck, and I’m not exactly sure why I seem to be attaching so much meaning to you, someone I’ve known for less than eight hours, other than I’m under some strange spell. But my horoscope did say my love life was going to be fucked this month because my ruling planet Jupiter is moving into Gemini and the full moon lunar eclipse in my sign Sagittarius would be the beginning of it, the full moon you happened to appear the night after. However, I never take horoscopes seriously, and while I’m not exactly in a happy relationship, Mags still has a lot of my heart and I’m not sure abandoning her for someone I’ve known less than eight hours—because if I leave with you we both know that’s what I’d be doing—is the right answer either. But I suppose it’s now or never for you...”
“No,” Walter then said after a short silence. “My tour ends in Paris in a week. Meet me there if you decide me. We are under some strange spell and it’s called sleep deprivation mixed with toxic levels of dopamine. Also, I did do a lot of drugs last night. Let’s wait until then to see if we’re still feeling our ‘alignment’ as strongly.”
“You’re right,” Shiva said. “Obviously we’re not thinking straight, and maybe some of this is in our heads. However, my heart feels differently.”
“Mine too, but hearts are idiots we shouldn’t always trust.”
“You got that right. Following my heart to Europe is what got me into this mess to begin with.”
“But it’s not a mess you have to stay with. Why not just go back home?”
“It’s not that I don’t want to go back, I just only have a limited time left before I can never travel again and now is my only time. I know that doesn’t make sense probably, but that’s the best I can put it. Also because I overstayed my visa, I most likely won’t be able to return to Europe for a long time, possibly never if the authorities discover the illegal activities I was engaged in, and there’s a good chance they will.”
“So what, you’re just going to stay in Europe until you get caught and deported?”
“I don’t understand. You’re twenty-two. What’s so limiting in your life? What else are you dancing around Shiva?”
She smirked and sighed weakly. “You’ve also gotten to know me better than our time together says you should,” she said. “Fine. But if you’re going to know my mother and I’s secret, you first need to meet my mother . . . The morning before my first day of first grade, I discovered her overdosed on painkillers in her bed when I went into her room to say goodbye. Although it was a suicide, she’d been suffering with Huntington’s disease my entire life, but she hadn’t been diagnosed until after she was pregnant with me. It started slowly, but by the time I was four, she was basically a prisoner of her body. She couldn’t complete a sentence without stuttering or walk without falling. Then she started to sporadically forget who I was, and eventually my father too, and it only got worse as time went on. There’s no cure, so we just had to watch helplessly as the disease robbed her of everything she loved about life: dancing, singing, her family, her freewill. So I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same in the same situation.”
Shiva’s eyes began to glisten and her breath began to deepen. “The thing is,” she said, “one day I will be in the same situation. Did you know that if you stretched your entire genome sequence around the world, the genetic mistake that caused my mother’s disease would only make up less than an inch? Just a few extra repeating lines of DNA makes the difference. But did you also know an affected parent has a fifty percent chance of passing the disease to their child?”
“You’re telling me…” Walter attempted to ask.
“Yes, I have Huntington’s also. I still have an estimated seven years or so before my decline should begin, but it can happen any time. Ultimately, however, whether by suicide or a slow regression from my body and mind, I’m not going to see anything close to a full life. But then I guess I should be asking myself if my life is already so compromised, then why should my heart be also? And as the Ace of Cups says, ‘divine love always looks like certain madness in the beginning’ . . . Fuck, it’s so much easier looking for guidance from the universe than accepting it. But how more direct can it be than someone with your fucking name on his t-shirt?”
“Speaking of my shirt...” Walter cleared his throat nervously, “...there’s something I ‘danced around’ last night also.”
A flash of the banshee came over Shiva’s face. “What do you mean there’s something you danced around?” she said.
“My friend, Dug . . . I’m 99.9 percent certain he’s the owner of the label that ripped you off because indeed he was running a record label—or what on the surface appeared to be a record label, and my shirt came out of a box of band shirts he had. While I can’t say I saw irrefutable evidence of a cocaine operation, he did have a lot of other boxes in the room with the box of band shirts he was very adamant about me not looking into. Also I did see him do a suspicious amount of coke for the brief time I was with him.”
“But the label was in Paris, not here. The only reason I moved to Amsterdam was this was where I was told I was selling the most records.”
“It was in Paris, but then he moved it to Amsterdam because his girlfriend wanted to move here, however, she left him for someone else three months after arriving. Now that I think about it, he said his girlfriend was a cabaret dancer . . . Mags wouldn’t happen to be Parisian?”
“Yes. And she moved here from Paris two years ago. When did Dug move here?”
“Two years ago. This may sound offensive, but how’s Mags’s ass compared to other asses?”
“Best I’ve seen, hands down.”
“And does she enjoy having something shoved up it every once and a while in order to get off?”
“Not particularly,” Shiva laughed, “but her subs do. Fisting is kind of what she’s famous for.” Walter gave her a coy look. “I said her subs,” she replied to his eyes. “Nobody wants to be at work at home and that’s all you need to know. Why, did this Dug say something different about his girlfriend?”
“Yeah, but maybe he just wasn’t man enough to admit it was the opposite way around. He also said she was an abstract painter who had an affinity for mixing her own vomit into the paint along with other bodily fluids like blood and semen. Does Mags do any painting?”
Shiva’s brows furrowed. “Not that I’m aware of,” she said. “However, where’s your shirt?”
“Here,” Walter said scooping it up from the floor and handing it to her. They then sat up in the bed and spread the shirt out over it.
“Look closely,” Shiva said, “I always knew there was something about this image that made it seem of flesh and blood, because it is—or at least some of it is. It so obvious looking at it now. His girlfriend must’ve been the person who painted this.” Shiva then looked suddenly as if she’d just been slapped repeatedly in the face. “Oh my God. It all makes sense, but also doesn’t make any sense at all.”
“What does?” Walter said.
They were then abruptly interrupted by a thunderous pounding at the cabin door. From the door’s porthole on the other side of the boat they saw a small image of a bald and mustached man poking an eye in on them.
“The deadbolt!” Shiva yelled and darted to the door on the other side of the boat to engage it. The man in the porthole then exploded in presumably Dutch expletives. Apparently he didn’t have a key.
Having followed her to the door, Walter saw the man had what appeared to be his family behind him, a wife, an adult son, and a young daughter.
“What’s going on?” Walter asked. “I thought you said you knew the owner?”
“The owner’s son technically, the tall guy in the blue shirt out there.”
“How do you know him?”
“Mostly biblically, every couple of weeks or so in here. But last week he said he was going out of town for a week starting yesterday, or maybe it could’ve been today. I wasn’t the most sober. I also didn’t consider ‘going out of town’ meant on his boat.”
Shiva waved through the porthole at her handsome-looking beau, who waved back awkwardly. His bald and mustached and much shorter father then turned and began yelling at Shiva’s beau, turned back to the door, kicked it a few times, yelled at her beau again a few more times, then sent him away.
“Well that bought us some time,” Shiva said. “If I translated correctly, I think he has to go get the key for the deadbolt. Let’s get out of here before he does.”
“So...” Walter asked as they clothed, “...anything else you’ve been ‘dancing around’ I should know?”
“Oh because hey Walter, let me take you back to my occasional fuckboy’s boat would’ve been better? Yes, you met me at sort of a shameful period in my life and I’m sorry if I’m not so ready to share it all with you right away. But regardless, what you ‘danced around’ was way worse. How could you not tell me after you knew what that bastard did—what he took from me? It makes me wonder if there’s anything else you’re protecting for him.”
“I wasn’t protecting him, and no there’s not. I didn’t tell you for the same reason you didn’t tell me about your girlfriend right away; I didn’t know last night would come to this. But I never planned on not telling you. However, now I’m wondering what else you might be ‘dancing around’ because you find it too ‘shameful’ to tell me. At least I actually danced around the truth, you just flat out lied.”
“Yeah, but a little white lie hurts a whole lot less than a fatass half-truth.”
Shiva then looked out the porthole. “Shit,” she said, “he’s already back with the key. We’re just going to have to make a run for it.”
They primed themselves by the door. “Ready?” she asked. Walter shook his head emphatically. She then swung the door open and they both charged forward, catching Shiva’s beau behind it off-guard and knocking him to the floor. They then jumped over his body to an applause. A crowd had gathered on the bank to watch the spectacle, clapping again as Walter outmaneuvered the short but burly father on the slippery and wet boat deck while the daughter and wife watched in horror.
Just as Walter’s feet made it to the canal sidewalk, the crowd lit up again as the father seized Shiva by the arm just as she was about to leap off the boat deck. She began shaking like a rodeo bull, but couldn’t free herself. She then slipped and the father managed to grab the other arm and pinned them both behind her back as Walter leapt back onto the deck and circled in a standoff with him.
“I’m very sorry,” Walter said. “Please let her go and we’ll leave. I don’t want any trouble.”
“Politie! Politie!” the father shouted back.
“What’s he saying?”
“Police!” Shiva cried, scowling in agony and embarrassment. “Walter, do something! I can’t get arrested.” However just as she said that she wrestled an arm away, then kicked the father squarely in the crotch. “Run!” she screamed.
Adrenaline took the lead. Sprinting faster than he thought capable, Walter began winding through the streets, keeping Shiva’s flashing red mane in his peripheral behind him.
“Run up that alleyway to the right!” he heard her shout.
He ducked into it and came upon a small and shady garden hub in which three smaller alleyways convened. He went into the left one and turned to wait for Shiva. After waiting a five second eternity, he ran back out into the street. She wasn’t there.
“Shiva!” he screamed. But the quiet street gave no response. “Shiva!”
Walter tried to backtrack his steps, but two streets in, he began to be unsure of his path. Two minutes later his mind was in a terror.
“Shiv—” he cut himself off just as he came upon the chirp of a siren from around a corner.
He dipped into a nearby flower shop and from behind its window saw her being loaded into a Volkswagen police car. He then ran to the window only to see the car pull away. Tears began waterfalling helplessly as he ran out of the flower shop and back onto the street in hyperventilation. He staggered back to the garden hub and crumpled onto a bench.
He’d lost her, and neither of them had any contact information for each other. Maybe love would forever be a no man’s land for Walter.
The Guinea Pig
“Es-tu prêt?” Shiva said coming out of Maloe Melo’s restroom after changing into her street clothes, a burnt orange maxi skirt and a black shirt covered by a blue jean vest. She’d put her hair in a messy bun and had a wrap choker cord necklace tied around her swan-like neck. No longer the banshee, what Walter thought was a dream was becoming more real.
“Prêt comme je serai jamais,” he replied.
In the taxi, he learned La Lune Rouge was a Parisian cabaret, but with an Amsterdam twist. While not technically a brothel, there was a hotel above it, and if performers, who were often times either off-duty sex show workers or prostitutes, wanted to take someone up there to exchange money for sex off-premises, they could and did. Most, however, came to the cabaret to practice routines they put together themselves or with others.
“The cabaret is where I met Mags,” Shiva told Walter. “She did this routine to Bowie’s ‘We Are The Dead’ as Halloween Jack and I was floored. I don’t like everything Bowie, but that song and Diamond Dogs are all-time favorites. We spoke after about doing a show