Three

The 1002nd Night

He was an Ethiopian prince and she the daughter of a wealthy widower, an Egyptian merchant, who, for reasons unknown, had settled in Vevey, Switzerland. They met one evening at a diplomats’ ball. It was her first ball; pleading, she had begged her father for permission to attend, and he finally, albeit reluctantly, gave in. “Beware, my daughter,” he warned, “the snares are strewn like flowers in life.” But as soon as her old chaperone turned her back, during a lively waltz, she was struck in the throng by a burning look that reached deep into her soul, making her feel like a bird that suddenly fathomed that it had lived its life in a cage and that there was a big blue sky overhead.

Her mother was an Italian ballerina who converted to Islam to marry the merchant, but a mere three years later, some six months after the birth of her daughter, leapt with a sudden pirouette into the arms of a Spanish bullfighter and ran away with him. The merchant followed the fugitives to Geneva, where, shortly thereafter, a fisherman spotted two shadows flitting about in the water. “There are no trout as big as that!” he reported to the police. Death by accident was the cause written in the death register. The merchant sold his holdings, placed his entire fortune in a Swiss bank account and withdrew in mourning from the worldly doings of Vevey. He had his daughter raised strictly. And though he had always intended to send her back to be brought up properly by a maiden aunt in Cairo, she bore such a striking resemblance to his wife, whom he still loved despite everything, that he could not bring himself to let her out of his sight. He himself was attached to this accursed place, to which scandal, jealousy and passion kept him shackled, and was ashamed to show his face again among his relatives in Cairo.

How can one describe a beauty such as that of the merchant’s daughter? Can alabaster blend with basalt? Are there black pearls or white ebony? She was a green-eyed Nefertiti with a seductive smile, skin as smooth and brown as a chestnut, and hair like black rain.

The Ethiopian was no less pleasing to look upon with his long limbs, his wild black eyes and his finely chiseled mahogany face.

Seeing them strolling together at sunset on the banks of Lake Geneva immediately brought to mind a tale out of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Like two cats, a wild panther and a sleek Siamese, they stepped quietly along the shore, listened to the whisper of a thousand and one tongues of water and gave no thought to the future or the past—until, finally, one night, alerted by the rattle of an open window, her father became aware of her absence, immediately sent his servants out to find her, and strictly forbade her ever to see the Ethiopian again.

Whereupon the prince sent the merchant countless treasures of ivory, ebony, gold and diamonds, and soon thereafter, dispatched a short note requesting his daughter’s hand in marriage.

But the merchant sent everything back. “The devil take your ivory and your precious stones. It is not because your skin is black,” the merchant informed the prince, “that is not the reason I refuse to give you my daughter for a bride, but because I would not have her wed an infidel, a Christian devil—N’audhubillah!

Now the prince secretly begged the merchant’s daughter for one last meeting. His wish was transmitted by a bribed servant, and despite her father’s ban, difficult as it was to elude his almost sleepless guard—as he had fired the woman who watched over her and stood watch himself—the daughter managed, with the aid of a sedative mixed in with his tobacco and kif, to slip barefoot out of the house and rush off to her lover.

This time the Ethiopian had a wilder look in his eyes than ever before. She grew frightened at the sight of him, but he took her by the hand and held so tight she could not elude his grip—an unnecessary precaution, since the shackles of love sufficed. Silently he drew her along. She shivered with fear and excitement. Take me where you will, I’ll follow! she thought.

For a long, long while, so it seemed to her, they walked without exchanging a single word. Never had the ripple of the lake sounded so loud. A half-moon hung low in the sky like a Turkish sword. And suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks, turned to her and said--: “If not for my eyes, then for none!” And he bit her nose off and spit it out into the water.

Bleeding, she fell in a faint, which is how her father found her the following morning, his fury muffled with fatherly concern.

The merchant had a thousand divers scour the lake bottom in the vicinity of the attack; they finally found the nose, which was successfully reattached, following a long and difficult operation in which the surgeon so skillfully sewed up bone and cartilage and covered it with soft skin taken from her calf, that within three months you had to search with a magnifying glass for the scars pulled back above the cheekbones, leaving an almost unnoticeable flaw that somehow made the whole all the more beautiful, like the glass eyes of the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin.

Protected by diplomatic immunity, the perpetrator escaped.

Not long afterwards, relieved, and nevertheless still cautious, the father gave his daughter as a bride to a well-to-do horse trader from Dubai. Shortly thereafter, pleased at the success of this, his last transaction, the merchant died of a heart attack. But a year later his daughter ran away from the horse trader and traveled to Ethiopia in search of her wild-eyed prince, where they lived happily together and she bore him children as beautiful as the flickering stars on a clear summer night.

 

 

Cry, Iced Killers!

It was the Sunday before Easter and everybody was already in a holiday mood. Murray, the old Good Humor Man who’d disappeared without a trace, could always be counted on for a Popsicle on credit; not so Seymour, his tight-fisted replacement. So when Brian and his buddies beat us at softball and claimed the field, we gamely swallowed the shame of defeat. But when they demanded our ice cream money we held out: “No way!” Fists flying, bats swinging, they chased us out of the park and across the Boulevard into oncoming traffic, obscurely screaming: “Cry, Iced Killers!”

I ran home in a state.

Um Gottes Willen!” my mother, who’d done her share of running, threw up her hands. Polish, Irish, Italian or Jewish, we all had parents with embarrassing accents who peppered their English with funny phrases.

“What...is...it...with...them...and... us?” I wedged the words in the sucking gaps between sobs.

“They blame us for his passing!” she said. “To them he was a big shot, to us he was just another Jewish meshuganah, but whatever he was, the Romans did it, not us, Gott sei dank!”

I nodded like I understood, but, honestly, I couldn’t figure what anybody had against Murray.

—“Romans are Italians, right, Mom?”

“That’s right,” she said, returning to her ironing.

“Like the Larussos?” I asked.

“Like the Larussos, nice people,” she nodded, pressing down hard on the collar of one of my father’s white shirts. “Better stay out of the park and play out back till this business blows over!”

“Okay, Mom!” I said, picturing a Maffia-style rub-out and poor Murray floating face-up with his bike and all the toasted almond pops you could eat, my favorite flavor, wasted on the fishes in Jamaica Bay.

So I went to the jungle, which is what we called the scruffy tree next to the garage, and climbed it. It wasn’t really a tree, just of a weed that wouldn’t stop growing with a tangle of tendrils like what Tarzan swung from on T.V. It’s where I went to think about things, like Pinocchio’s nose and that other part that grew when you rubbed it, and the mystery of Murray’s disappearance. My mother said he moved to Florida, like Grandma and Dr. Gold. “So how come none of them ever call?” “Long distance is very expensive,” my mother explained.

Then along came Brian’s old man, Sergeant Boyle, dragging a trashcan heaped high with bottles. He lived next door, upstairs from the Larussos, with his crippled wife and no-good son. “The bottle was his ruin,” I once heard my father whisper. Retired from the Force, Sergeant Boyle worked as a night watchman at the A&P, but everybody still called him Sergeant.

“What’s up, killer?” he rubbed his red nose and winked, fists clenched, prizefighter style.

“It wasn’t me!” I cried, amazed at his policing ability.

“You can’t escape the truth,” he waved a crooked right index finger, “why it’s as clear as the blue of your eyes, you’re not cut from the same cloth!”

I stared at the scraped shin peaking through the rip in the left leg of my Levis, wondering what it revealed.

“Can you keep a secret, son,” the Sergeant winked, “cross your heart and hope to die?!”

I gulped hard and nodded, even though my mother told me time and again we don’t do that.

“Tell me now, have you ever seen a little Hebrew with blue eyes?” he rubbed his nose again and winked. “Look at yer supposed kin, eyes dark as the Devil’s! Now look at yer own peepers, blue as Heaven above! Why the freckles on your forehead are a dead give-away, boy. There’s more than a drop of Hibernian blood runnin’ through them veins, or my name ain’t Boyle!”

I knew people had different types of blood, but I’d never heard of Hibernian.—“Is that a good kind?”

“By the blood of Saint Patrick,” he swore, right hand to his heart, where he still wore his badge, “it’s the best!”

Which is when my mother—who had a built-in antenna for trouble, although she generally tuned in late—poked her head out the back window.

“Good day to you, Mrs. Lieberman!” Sergeant Boyle snapped to attention.“Mum’s the word about our little secret, son!” he winked up at me.

“How’s Mrs. Boyle?” my mother put on her neighborly smile.

“A saint, Lord love her!” he sighed.

Nobody had actually laid eyes on Mrs. Boyle in years, and some of the kids on the block suspected him of hacking her to death and carrying out the body parts in the garbage, ever since a beat-up old woman’s shoe fell out from under the bottles.

—“And Brian?”

“Boys will be boys,” he shrugged, “but your Henry, now there’s a sharp one!” the Sergeant shrewdly changed the subject. “Well I’d best be about my business! Good day to you, Mrs. Lieberman, best regards to the chief.” And reaching up to tip his hat before he realized he wasn’t wearing one, he shrugged again, and staggered off, dragging the un-emptied garbage behind.

My mother was worried about me. She took me to see Dr. Plotz, but he couldn’t find any bodily cause for my upset.

How could I tell her about my Hibernian blood, that we weren’t cut from the same cloth, and that my blue eyes and freckles cancelled out all the stuff they crammed into our brains in Hebrew School about

Moses and the burning bush and plumbing problems in the Red Sea?

Back in my tree on Easter Sunday, I spotted Brian, all dressed up, on his way home from church.

—“No hard feelings, huh, Henry?”

—“Forget it!”

—“Swell!” He was worried about the licking he’d get if his father ever found out, which allowed me a little leverage.

“Listen, Brian,” I said, “I’ll give you a Mickey Mantle if you get me into church, I got something I need to confess.”

“Are you crazy!?” he protested, though I could tell he was tempted. “What if they find out you’re a fake?”

“Alright,” I said, “I’ll throw in a Roger Maris!”

“Deal!” Brian drooled.

It was no trouble at all getting into Our Lady of Fatima, since everybody else was getting out.

Brian crossed himself and I did the same.

“With the right hand, stupid!” he corrected my technique. “Now when you get inside the confessional,” he said, clutching the Mickey Mantle card I’d handed over as a down payment, “you kneel down and mumble, the quicker the better: ‘Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It’s been a week since my last confession.’ Only you’d better tell the truth,” Brian warned, nodding at the picture of a sad-eyed man with his arms spread wide on the wall, “because His eyes’ll burn a hole in your chest ‘n eat out your heart if you’re lying! I’ll be outside waiting, okay?”

—“What’s it like inside?”

“It’s like a phone booth with long distance built in,” he explained, “like one of those little fake wooden houses you crawl into and get kicked out of at F.A.O. Schwarz, only smaller.”

An old woman knelt in prayer before the picture of the sad-eyed man with his arms spread wide on the wall turned around and gave us a nasty look.

Brian ran.

I dodged into a confessional and crouched in a corner, unsure of what to do next, when a wooden screen slid open and a cough came from the other side. It was like I’d crawled into the hollow trunk of a talking tree. I waited, heart racing, for the tree to start the conversation.

He already knows the truth!” a voice said after a while.

I spit out the words Brian taught me: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It’s been one week since my last confession.”

—“Unburden your heart, boy!”

—“My parents don’t suspect.”

—“What don’t they suspect?”

—“It’s my Hibernian blood, see? We’re not cut from the same cloth.”

—“Indeed.”

—“I don’t want to hurt their feelings.”

—“Naturally…Do you rub it?”

“Sometimes,” I said, poking a finger through the growing tear in the left leg of my Levis, wondering how in the world he found out. “It’s sore.”

—“How often do you rub it?”

—“I don’t know.”

—“It’s a sin!”

“Alright,” I said, “I’ll get my mother to sew it up.”

Silence.

—“Is there anything else?”

“There’s one more thing,” I said, “I know who did it!”

—“Who did what?”

—“I know who iced the Good Humor Man.”

Silence.

“I swear it wasn’t me, it was the Larussos,” I said, “but maybe it was self defense, they’re not the killer kind!”

“Ah-hem! Ah-hem!” came a cough and a lot of throat clearing. Then it suddenly dawned on me. For all I knew, the confessor was Roman himself, in with the Mob, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to wait around to find out.

I ran, panting, out of that confessional booth, past the old lady knelt in prayer, past the picture of the sad-eyed man with his arms spread wide on the wall, and out the doors of Our Lady of Fatima.

Brian ran after me all the way home.

“Where’s my Roger Maris?!” he demanded.

 “Double or nothing,” I said, waving the promised card in his face.

 We flipped and I won both cards back.

“You Jew’d me!” Brian fumed.

“Better luck next time!” I shrugged.

That’s when Mister Softee appeared on the scene, a heaven-sent truck full of sweetness.

“My treat!” I said, declaring a truce.

The jingling bicycle bell and the canned melody clashed for a while, like the call of two religions. But it was no contest. Toasted almond was out. Soft ice cream in a wafer cone was in. We all ran to the truck, aching for a lick. The driver looked Italian. Maybe Seymour just gave up. It would have served him right, the tight-fisted bastard. Or maybe, I remember thinking, somebody tipped him off to watch out for the Larussos.

 

 

Leonard’s Drip

Consider Leonard. A lad of dry temperament and complexion and thin lips, practically parched in affect and mind, dry as the desert. His dryness had always been a point of pride. Till one day he began to drip. At first he thought it was the rain coming in through a leak in the ceiling of his modest mansard. But he looked out the window and saw that it was sunny, not a cloud in the sky. Then he thought it might be a problem with the pipes.

So Leonard called the plumber, but the plumber’s assistant said the boss was busy at the moment, and to try again tomorrow.

“It’s a bad drip,” said Leonard.

“A bucket might be advisable as a stop-gap measure,” replied the assistant.”

So Leonard fetched a rain bucket, actually a cracked casserole that doubled as a bucket to catch leaks in inclement weather, and placed it strategically where he had last detected the suspicious moisture. But when he moved about the mansard—actually an attic, though being a bit old-fashioned and somewhat stuck-up, Leonard preferred to refer to it as a mansard—the dripping followed him like a lapdog. It was then that he noticed upon turning about, a telltale trail of droplets gathered in his wake.

Alarmed, Leonard bent down to inspect the liquid. Relieved at least to find that it was not red, as he feared, he was nevertheless concerned to confirm without a doubt that the drip did not emanate from his immediate surroundings, neither from ceiling, windows, walls nor floor, but from what seemed rather to come from somewhere inside himself.

A fretful Leonard called the doctor. “I’m dripping,” he said to the doctor’s secretary.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, “the doctor can see you next Wednesday.”

“Can’t he make it any sooner?”

“Wednesday,” she said.

“Very well,” said Leonard, now positively distraught, and hung up.

Wednesday was a full five days away, and meanwhile the desperate man had to deal with his drip.

He bent down, brought his nose close to sniff the clear concavity, observing that the drip had no noticeable odor, and consequently could not possibly have emanated from either the anterior or the posterior. Perhaps it’s perspiration, he thought. Never having invested in an air conditioner, let alone a fan—not so much out of parsimony, though he had indeed been called a tightwad, among other things, by his erstwhile fiancé Louise, who left him for a dentist with sweaty palms and a disposable income, but rather on account of a certain innate torpor, an inertia that made decisions difficult—whatever the weather, Leonard had for as long as he could remember always remained dry.

Must be global warming, he pondered, a climactic condition adamantly denied by his next door neighbor, Maxwell, who kept a flag flapping outside his window at all times, an amalgam of skepticism and faith, science and taxes be damned. Leonard kept his own tabs on the weather by means of a Centigrade thermometer made in Thailand he had once, to please faithless Louise, attached to his own window frame, though he was unable to convert Centigrade to Fahrenheit—which device, he suddenly fathomed with a start, was itself a glass-enclosed drip. A mere droplet of mercury can be deadly if ever it seeped out, he shuddered at the prospect, pulled down the shade and huddled in terror.

Perhaps, he thought, I have always dripped, and just never noticed it till now. Yes, it must be so, he tried to think back, but try as he might he could not remember any undue moisture or condensation ever gathering either on his lip or brow or in his wake. He had always remained dry. With no other recourse, given the fact that it was five days until the doctor could see him, Leonard decided to study the residue.

With a cracked wooden ruler preserved from childhood, from which most of the numbers had been effaced, he tried to measure the diameter of each drop. Two centimeters across, he estimated. Hesitating at first, his curiosity got the better of his alarm, and he went so far as to first finger, and then graze the surface of one of the telltale drops with his tongue, thinking that perhaps it might be tears. I must be sad, he thought. But the drop was not salty. Now what?

He searched his body for blisters that might have burst and oozed, but found none.

He dropped his pants and patted first his boxer fly then his bottom. Dry. He raised his shirt and twisted his neck to examine his back as best he could in a tall mirror he’d tacked to the closet door, another concession to Louise, which for sentimentality’s sake and the aforementioned torpor, he couldn’t quite bring himself to remove when she left him for the dentist. Then he remembered his nose, the only part of him that occasionally dribbled in cold weather, but it too was dry. He scratched his itchy scalp, producing a veritable avalanche of dandruff flakes. But in all these investigations he came up high and dry.

He had read somewhere that the human body was 57 percent water, 75 percent in newborns, and peering at himself in the mirror, felt a bit like a leaky lake or a water balloon of the sort he had once flung out the window on a hapless passersby as a prank in adolescence. Is Man then nothing but a leaky water balloon? he wondered. But being dry-minded and practical, he immediately blotted out such metaphysical musings.

Everyone leaks at some point in his life, why it’s perfectly natural, he told himself. Infants drip daily. Women drip monthly. The elderly are afflicted with a chronic drip. But being neither infant, nor female, nor as yet addled with age, his life had heretofore, as previously stated, been a long dry spell.

Does this mean that age is upon me? Leonard fretted, and decided to forestall the onset. Others dye their hair or get a face lift to turn back the clock. I’ll plug up the drip, he resolved, whatever the source.

Stripping naked, standing now with his back to the tall dressing mirror, and tilting every which way a small round powder mirror he’d one day on a whim filched from Louise’s purse and kept stashed away as a sort of subliminal souvenir, he strained to peruse the otherwise hidden sectors of self. But try as he might, he found no swollen pore, no bruise, no bulge, no blister.

That night he went to bed wearing an adult diaper to test for possible incontinence, but awakened dry below. Relieved, having all but forgotten the source of his concern, Leonard leaned out of bed and looked down to find his face reflected in a little circle of droplets.

He leapt out of bed in a panic. Get a handle on yourself, Leonard! he commanded, and contrary to his ordinary stasis, decided to get dressed and go for a walk, with the ulterior, albeit unspoken, motive of testing whether the drip would follow, or whether it was strictly domestic.

His drip, alas, went with him.

Embarrassed lest the world become aware of his leak, he decided to follow a man walking his golden retriever. Leonard watched from a distance as the canine, a male, stopped periodically, lifting his hind leg to spray and sniff the trail of dried up residual sprays. It was a handsome dog with a golden coat of fur, and the owner was rightfully proud of his pet. After a while he sat down on a bench, and it being sunny out, promptly fell asleep with a contented smile. Leonard envied the man for his evident contentment and for having such a fine pet. It was then, as if cognizant of his unspoken longings, that the dog came over to sniff at him. Not long enough to allow for such canine license, the leash slipped from the sleeping man’s hand.

“Get lost!” said Leonard, embarrassed, trying to shoo it away with the toe of his loafer.

But the dog was determined and sniffed him all over, taking evident delight in the man and his drip. Leonard was mortified, paralyzed with shame, lest people notice. But when the dog proceeded, first to sniff, then to lick up the trail of telltale drops, Leonard had an idea.

Looking around to make sure that the master was still asleep, and that no one else noticed, Leonard grabbed hold of the leash, took a few exploratory steps and kept walking. It was his intention to employ the creature as a foil, to blame it for his leak. Just as he had hoped, instead of walking ahead, as dogs are wont, it trailed behind, first sniffing then licking up his drops.

Leonard took the dog home with him. He resolved to return to the bench the next day and leave an envelope addressed to “The Man Who Lost his Retriever” stuffed with a wad of bills commensurate with the dog’s value.

Having found, if not the source of the problem, at least a solution to his dilemma, the perfect antidote, a walking mop to wipe up the trace of his leaky self, Leonard was well pleased.

But pets were not permitted in the building in which he lived. And wouldn’t you know it—Leonard suspected Maxwell—the next day the super came by and told him the dog would have to go.

Distraught as he was, Leonard resolved to return the dog to its master.

He spotted the man in the distance, seated on the same bench on which he had seen him the day before, looking forlorn. Careful not to be noticed, Leonard dodged with the retriever behind a tree. Uncharacteristically swift and decisive, he let go of the leash, and watched from behind the trunk as the dog ran to his master. Overjoyed, the man hugged the dog.

“Where have you been, boy?”

The dog barked.

The man looked around to see where he came from.

But Leonard had meanwhile dodged behind a nanny wheeling a baby carriage, holding a toddler by the hand. The toddler paused and tugged at the nanny’s hand. The nanny scowled. Leonard noticed the trail of drops.

“I told you to go before we went out!” she scolded.

Briefly, very briefly, he contemplated kidnapping the child as an alternate foil, but that would be going too far.

Leonard sighed, relieved to come to his senses, deciding henceforth to make do with his drip, to accept it as one might baldness, a limp or a stutter, or some other impediment. He decided to buy a lemon Italian ice to celebrate his newfound resolve.

“It’s no-drip ice,” said the ice cream vendor.

“Come again?” said Leonard.

“To keep the kiddies clean,” the vendor replied.

Leonard paid and slunk off in shame, lest the vendor notice his drip.

When he got home he set the ice on the window sill where most people keep potted plants.

And wonder of wonders, it not only refrained from dripping, but spread its influence on its surroundings. Rather than melt, it sucked up all moisture in its immediate periphery, including Leonard’s drip.

All day Leonard sat admiring the ice, unique as it was, identifying with it in some wordless way as the embodiment of his former dryness. For the longest time he was well pleased, and then—funny the way the mind works, craving back what it once reviled—and reflecting on a dryness he had always taken for granted as a given, Leonard missed the drip. In a fit of indecipherable emotions he hurled the dry lemon ice out the window just as Maxwell was getting home from work. Leonard shrank back out of sight, as Maxwell wiped the residue from his bald pate.

“Damn pigeons!” he cursed.

Leonard turned on the T.V. The weatherman predicted rain.

Contributor

Peter Wortsman

Peter Wortsman's recent works include a travel memoir, Ghost Dance in Berlin (Travelers' Tales, 2013)--for which he won a 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY); a novel, Cold Earth Wanderers (Pelekinesis, 2014--a finalist for 2014 Foreword Reviews' Best Science Fiction Book of the Year--and an anthology which he selected, translated and edited, Tales of the German Imagination (Penguin Classics, UK, 2013). Forthcoming are a book of short fiction, Footprints in Wet Cement (Pelekinesis, 2017) and a translation, Konundrum, Selected Prose of Franz Kafka (Archipelago Books, 2016). He was a Holtzbrinck Fellow in 2010 at the American Academy in Berlin.

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