Bergdorf liked the space by the water heater. He waited for me propped up rigid against the dark corner of the furnace room. We met regularly, but I never got used to seeing him. Getting used to someone like Bergdorf would mean something else entirely for me.
“Hello, Abe,” Bergdorf says when he sees that it is me. He pushes himself up the wall with his shoulder, his hooves clicking on the concrete floor. When people ask, people attuned to Bergdorf, his associates, and the nature of their businesses, I tell them as I tell you now: Bergdorf looks like a skinned calf; clotted fat in some places, smooth and veiny in others, lipless rictus of dirty herbivore teeth and cloudy lolling dead eyes. Sometimes I’m asked if Bergdorf is a sheep and I tell them they should know better—Bergdorf is neither a sheep nor a calf.
I can’t speak Bergdorf’s name in his presence, otherwise he will be bound to me and I can’t take on that amount of responsibility. Instead, I wave to him as I would a nameless child on a school bus at a stoplight.
“Listen,” he says, “we need a piece of amber.” But they never just need a piece of amber. They never just need a piece of wood.
“Okay,” I say.
“Will you bring it to me?”
“Yes,” I say. This is the sealing of the contract. Bergdorf and his associates are very formal and professional.
Above, my nieces’ bare feet thump around the stair well, and I recall why I came to the furnace room in the first place. The can of bug spray is ironically enshrouded by spider’s web, its maker attached, curled and dried out. I wipe what sticks to the can off on my sock and shake the can. Reaching for the shoe string that is the pull cord for the light, I see Bergdorf has departed.
The girls are by the front door when I come upstairs. “Don’t you dare go out front,” I tell them. They shake their heads no. “Where is it?” But they don’t have to tell me, I can hear it buzzing in the hallway.
When I see it, I can’t help but wonder at first if it is one of Bergdorf’s associates from another department, it’s that unusually large and nefarious. It flies out of the bathroom, hits the wall, flies down the hall into Penny’s room, then across to the twins’ room, back into the hall, alighting on the vent in the celling. It doesn’t look so much like a wasp as it does two wasps copulating, its humped thorax and abdomen shiny as though polished. I tell it, “You don’t belong here,” and fire, but it escapes between the slats.
“Did you get him?” one of the girls asks.
“Yeah, I got him.”
Nobody asks to be an uncle and I certainly never wanted to be a parent, but my sister Penny and I have an arrangement. Even so, Holly and Ivy, at age nine, are acceptable. They aren’t sugar fiends; they eat their meat without protest and like microwaved peas as is, they like carrots, cooked or raw. They put themselves to sleep, and they’d rather draw or read to each other than watch television. They are what you expect to be the definition of good kids. I have no doubt they are also telepathically linked with each other. I can see it in their expressions.
They set the table for dinner, folding paper towels into fancy napkins that are abstractions of swans or Dachshunds; snowflakes and stars are also popular. Shepard’s pie is easy—I make it once a week. Four nights out of the week, I cook, and Penny cooks the other three. She has two days off in a row coming up, her weekend coinciding with the actual weekend for a change, so I’ll be able to get my work done. At least the initial work. Tasks for Bergdorf are never cut and dry.
Penny usually comes home after the twins are in bed. We try not to speak to each other unless we absolutely have information to share that can’t be communicated any other way. I just miss avoiding her on my way downstairs.
“Hey,” she says.
“Oh, hey.” I stall in the kitchen, look for something to grab so it doesn’t seem like I can’t get away from her fast enough. I study the calendar on the refrigerator.
“Do you want this?” She has the mail in her hands, holds a piece of it to me like a filthy undergarment. My annual statement.
“Just rip it up. It’s okay.”
“Here,” she says, walking to me, shaking the letter.
“Night,” she says, going down the hall to bed, skipping Shepard’s pie.
I sleep late the next day. Sometime in the afternoon, when the house is empty, I wake and clean myself up. The first thing I do is go to a gem and mineral store I’ve seen on South Broadway, even though I know the amber Bergdorf needs will not be there, but I need to familiarize myself with the product. The proprietor treats me with cold caution because of the sheen I must possess by now, not an aura, but a clinging film of energy that roils like motor oil in a puddle of rain water. Or so I’m told. At the front of the store, there is a giant geode of amethyst that reminds me of a coffin. There are ammonites everywhere, more ammonites then typical for a gem and mineral store. I think of the store owner as the crazy ammonite lady. All of the fossils try to draw me in and it’s hard to concentrate, so I quickly grab a piece of lapis. Even though it makes me nauseous, it silences the fossils. The store owner clings to something around her neck and avoids making eye contact with me. “I’m just looking,” I say in as pleasant of a voice as I can force.
There are small blobs of amber on the shelves with the cups of onyx and malachite and hematite. The good amber though, the amber with its little time travelers, is behind the counter. “May I,” I smile, “may I see the amber?” She coughs with an arid mouth and places the tray of specimens before me. Inside are flies and mosquitoes, one spider, and various leaves and fern fronds. The lapis doesn’t prohibit the buzzing of the insects, which amplifies the nausea, so I bound to the door, my brief study complete.
“Thanks,” I call back, placing the lapis on the window sill before I exit. Outside, I dry heave into the gutter, spit sandy foam, and then depart down the sidewalk.
I hate dry heaving. Ever since I began assisting Bergdorf and his associates, dry heaving has become one of the many taxes I pay. Oddly, the only remedy is intoxication, and getting shitfaced is its own separate tax.
I pass by my car and check the meter. I load it to a maximum of two hours. Then I cross the street to an old gay dive. Four fat guys playing cribbage spill out of a red vinyl booth and two craggy bikers, heavily bearded and pierced, sit at the front end of the bar. I sit at the far end. “Two Bud Lights, two Jamesons,” I say to the bartender.
“Okay, baby girl,” he says.
I cram down the drinks in under twenty minutes, and then teeter on the stool for a while, listening to a Chet Baker record pop and crackle.
“Sexy man, sexy man,” I hear behind me. I turn around and see Cruz, a red-headed Mexican I’ve become acquainted with in the new circles I inhabit. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“Let me buy you a drink,” I reply.
Cruz orders an Absolut martini. “What does your girlfriend want?” the bartender asks.
“Just another beer,” I say. He pours me another Jameson anyway, sets it alongside the beer and blows me a kiss.
Cruz asks me, “You working on a Saturday?”
“Is it Saturday?”
Cruz laughs. “Is that how it is, now? Not me, boy, no way. Nothing is worth working on the Sabbath.”
“I get the call, I got to take it.” I shoot the Jameson.
“When he gets the call,” Cruz echoes dubiously and scratches the back of his hand with the red stubble on his cheek.
After the Chet Baker record, the bartender puts on Abba and I decide it’s time to leave before driving is impossible.
I square up my tab and when I finish my beer, Cruz says, “Let me see your hand, Abe.”
“Why? Is it going to say something new?” Cruz is, among other vocations, a palm reader.
“Of course,” he says, grabbing my left hand, wet with condensation. “Consider this an annual well visit.”
In movies, the psychic freaks out when they learn something horrifying. Not Cruz. “Oh, shit,” he says gently and looks deeper into my hand. He shudders. “Shit, shit, Abe.” He turns my hand over and kisses a scab on one of my knuckles. “Oh well,” he says.
On my slow and steady drive back home I see a billboard for a major gem and mineral show. The graphics on the sign depict a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull, a slice of petrified wood and, of course, an ammonite. The images throb on the sign and I have to pull over into a residential neighborhood for the immediate headache I suffer.
Not every task for Bergdorf is this bad. But I’m a good agent. When Bergdorf said he needed hair, I got him hair. When he needed a bone, I got him a bone. Some tasks are too difficult for other people, but I have become attuned to performing such tasks. Now I’m leery, this task is beginning to seem like the worst, but the contract is sealed. There is no renegotiation, there is no reneging.
A woman pushing a stroller calls into my passenger side window, “Are you okay?”
I lift my head from the steering wheel and tell her, “Migraine.”
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry. My sister gets migraines. Here.” She hands me a bottle of water. I can see the baby’s fat legs stirring the air.
“Thank you,” I say. The water isn’t cool, but it lubricates, and the headache subsides. And even though I am not doing anything directly adverse to the woman or her baby, I feel awful about myself and my task for Bergdorf.
“You take it easy,” she says, waving goodbye and with a quick pace turns the corner.
The headache is bad, and the nausea related with it will not be relieved by booze. As I motion to start the car, there is a clicking in the passenger side A/C blower. I fiddle with it until I see one of Bergdorf’s milky eyes peer out.
“Abe, your father would like to see you.”
“I know,” I say. Thinking of my dad does not help the headache. It actually expands the pain to other parts of my head, a tidal force pushing out and contracting through my eyes. It’s been over two weeks since I saw my dad last, and I used to see him every day. It’s hard to see someone who is already gone, a living ghost, but not a ghost at all. I don’t know if Bergdorf commutates directly with my dad or not. I don’t want to ask.
Bergdorf’s voice is in my head. “I can help with the headache.”
I politely decline. The eye rolls away and the car ignites itself.
The gem and mineral show isn’t for a few days. There are other stores, and there is the natural history museum, but I know the amber Bergdorf needs will only be at the show. The show is at the Commerce Center and lasts a week. I can’t imagine what mineralogists and gem collectors can do for an entire week. They build an encampment around the Commerce Center of trailers and tents and campers, as though they were something else, gypsies or Bedouins. In the meantime, I mostly sleep. On Thursday, the day before the show begins, I visit my father at the nursing home. He is sitting in his wheelchair. “Hi Pop.” He can’t turn his head, but he looks at me with straining, moist eyes and raises a taut finger to me in acknowledgment. He says hi but it sounds like a labored exhale. I lay on his adjustable bed and we watch the last few innings of a baseball game.
One might think that nightmares and insomnia would be occupational hazards of a professional relationship with Bergdorf and his organization. For me, sleep comes easy and the rest is always dreamless. I do miss dreaming, yet so much of my life is a waking dream. A true dream, nonlinear, abundant with unanswered questions and inconsistencies.
“Abraham. Your father is going to dinner.” I wake up to the young bespectacled face of Nana Mousikari. It’s his doctor, who I have a crush on. She’s a Russian Jew from New York and her accent is severe, which makes her all the more attractive. I look around in the gloom for him. “He’s in the bathroom with Idi.” Embarrassed, I jump from the bed. My legs tingle because of the odd angles in the mechanical frame and I’m lightheaded, so I nearly collapse into her.
“Here is your son, Benjamin.” Idi hands my dad off to me. We creep down the hall because my dad won’t pick his feet up and let me just push him. He likes to shuffle along, pretend he is still walking.
My dad points to a woman in our way, Grace. She guides her hand alongside the handrail, repeating but over and over again, the word pronounced with different inflections as if she were saying more than a single word.
A man I call the Colonel stops us before we get to the dining room. “There you are, Captain,” he says.
I salute him. My dad tries to salute him.
The Colonel looks back at the dining room, down the hall. He says to me quietly, “They’ve stopped posting guards. We might get our lucky break tonight. If we can avoid their dogs…” He gives me some iteration of this plan every time I see him.
The first time I sat with my dad for dinner in the nursing home, when he could still talk, he told me, “These people are crazy.” I told him I knew, and that I was sorry. He patted my hand and squeezed it so hard drops of water ran from my eyes. That was two years ago.
I sit behind and to my dad’s side as he eats his mashed vegetables with precise measures of his spoon. Almost nobody at our table is eating, their Jell-O and fruit cups empty and their conversations sparse, which is preferable for the two of us. I fail, however, to go unnoticed by an unfamiliar woman slouching into the dining room.
“There’s one,” she screams, looking at me, gripping the sides of her walker so her hands drain white. She convulses, wets and shits herself. Two nurses attempt to lay her on the ground, but she is in frenzy, her crooked hands flailing them away, her eyes adhered to my eyes. It’s been almost seven months since this type of thing has happened. Cruz reassured me, once, this sort of reaction was not because of my work for Bergdorf, but I think he was messing with me.
An ambulance takes the woman away, and not long after that, I take my dad back to his room. His roommate grumbles, “Get out of here.” He is not talking to us. My dad pats his bed, but I tell him I have to go. He nods to me.
“I’ll be back soon. Not tomorrow, but soon. Okay?”
The roommate answers me, “Okay.”
The Colonel is waiting by the code locked doors. He says, “Hold on, Captain. If you go through that gate they’ll shoot you in cold blood.” I have to ignore him, because if I don’t, he’ll start crying and begging to take him with me. I punch the code to his astonishment and slip through the door. Part of him thinks I’m a Nazi, and part of him wants to escape with me, but part of him is afraid of being shot. I know how he feels.
Next: Episode 2