The bottle blond is making out with this old guy and I’m next to them on the couch wondering what the hell is going on in my hallucination, this lucid dream state where I know that I’m sleeping yet don’t want to awaken because somehow, strange as this is, it’s better, more compelling, more involving, than the waking world.
Slender and curvaceous, hard-edged but oh-so-sexy, the blonde—I don’t know her name—is attired for marketing, her catalog of womanly wares displayed for browsing or close inspection. She’s swapping spit with the old dude, letting him rub and stroke her hither, thither and yon—and then she reaches out and takes my hand.
While she’s still making out with the other dude.
He’s wrinkled but tall and raw-boned, a Ben Gurion fringe of white hair crowning his bald dome. I’m not my young, supple, Army-strong, buzz-cut self as I usually am in dreams. No, I’m my present, porcine, white-haired, creaky-jointed self. When she takes my hand and inflates my libido with a stare from one robin’s-egg-blue eye—the other one is jammed against the old guy’s face—I realize that I’m auditioning to understudy him.
It’s creepy weird, but that’s a dream for you. A little reality—over a long life I’ve now and then foolishly allowed myself to be used in demeaning ways—and a whole lot of freakish nonsense.
Now the other guy is gone and it’s just me and her standing on a giant macadam apron behind a row of high-rise apartments and I see that her home is a one-room shack forlornly slumped against a corner of a forbiddingly high fence that borders the complex.
“He’s my hero,” she says, I guess referring to the wrinkled fringe dome guy.
“He rescued me,” she adds, and then a giant wrecking ball flattens her shack and a bulldozer appears from out of nowhere—that’s another thing about my dreams, time is as warped as an Escher drawing—and with one pass of its blade scoops up the wreckage and disappears around a corner that wasn’t there a second ago.
“My goddamn landlord,” she says, spreading her arms wide and frowning till I worry that her mascara will crack, sighing and blinking like this explains everything.
Maybe, in her dream, it actually does.
Then I hear a rattling, high-pitched whine like the bogey wheels on an Abrams tank and here’s this massive tracked vehicle, treads higher than a point guard’s head, and Main-Street wide. Behind it rolls a giant crane. In two shakes the crane is pulling pre-fab boxes off the back of the behemoth mover and stacking one atop another into a rambling ziggurat that turns out to be a multi-story, wedding-cake of a house.
We go inside and mirabile dictu, it’s completely furnished, lights on, music playing. I see now that I’m not even auditioning for understudy. I’m only the backup.
I’m her Plan B.
And I think about this for a minute, which in a dream might be an hour or a second of actual REM time, and as I cogitate and concentrate and worry over the details I conclude that libido be damned, I am never, no-how, nobody’s sugar daddy, not possible.
“You need to find some way to support yourself,” I tell the bottle blonde and zip zap zoom! we’re meandering through an endless hardware store, like some lunatic Mandelbrot fractal of B&B Hardware, floor-to-ceiling bins and shelves and drawers crammed with every sort of nut and bolt and screw and nail and knob and chain and tool and gizmo, a store so big that you’re always deep in its twisting, curvilinear middle.
I grab some tiny screwdrivers and squish five into an irregular lineup.
“Look, these could be earrings. Maybe even a belt buckle.”
I pull a length of chain off a roll, bite off a link and circle her waist with it.
“See, they could go with this as a belt.”
She grunts, very softly, moving against me, calculatingly making body contact. I take anodized carbon-steel lug nuts from a bin and arrange them in her manicured hand, grooving on their shape and texture, arranging them this way and that.
“Do mechanics even wear earrings?” she mumbles.
“Think about how cool they’d look plated with silver. Or brass. Maybe copper, and then an acid bath for a nice patina. Even an anodized finish,” I add
“I don’t know about all this stuff. I just need someone to rescue me.”
“Wait, look at these,” I say, grabbing some hacksaw blades and arranging the edges so they’re irregularly staggered. I pull out my camera and zoom it to take a close-up of the geometric pattern, then hold the Nikon’s back up for her to look at.
“Very pretty. I’ve got a lot of overhead, you know.”
In the distance, thunder rattles the store.
Distracted, I turn my head to paw through tiny, round-head stainless steel hex nuts, arranging them in my hand, peering closely at them, grooving on the reflections of nearby bins and shelves. Then I see a stack of needle files, and marvel over their surface patterns. Could these be bent round, plated and made into bracelets?
There’s the thunder again, louder. There was nothing in the forecast—Oh, there’s those cool chromed nails. Their heads are tiny ellipses--
So much to look at. I spy bronze concrete nails with grooved, twisted shanks--
I open one eye. My daughter has cracked my bedroom door and is looking at me. “Can I use your car? Samson needs to go to the doggie park and my brakes won’t be ready until this afternoon?”
Brakes? I bet the shoes will have an interesting texture. Carborundum is way cool stuff. I should go over and look at that.
Annoyed, I open both eyes. “Sure, take the car.”
I drift back to sleep, vaguely wondering about the blonde but getting more and more worried, obsessing, really, because I want to look at the emery cloth, it’s got really nifty teeny-tiny, jagged-edge grains and naturally folds into different patterns but I can’t find the hardware store and now I can’t find my car—it isn’t where I parked it.
Peering every which way, panic rising in me, I walk streets somehow simultaneously familiar and strange. Could they be Frankfurt, Seoul, London, Montreal, New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Saigon, Chicago—places I haven’t visited in decades? I’m stressed, anxious to get back to the store but disoriented and this morphs into my familiar standby dream, where I’m wandering, lost, trying to find my way home. I always end up home in bed in these, mildly exasperated, a little disappointed.
I open both eyes and sit up.
Bottle blondes are always on sale somewhere. But I really wish that I could find that hardware store again.
© 2011 Marvin J. Wolf
The Volkswagen was almost six years old. I had planned to buy something new, or at least newer, about six months before it was time to go home from German. But after a wire broke and the engine quit, stranding me on a foggy autobahn night, I decided it was time to start looking for another car.
At that time I was an adjutant, the battalion CO's principal paper-pusher, in charge of everything that had to do with manpower and personnel. Our unit operated the communications links between air defense missile sites guarding Western Europe's airspace. We kept microwave and shortwave radio systems on the air around the clock. It meant that my headquarters went to the field only once a year and my duty schedule was very predictable. I went into the office at eight and was home in our two-bedroom apartment by five-thirty, and rarely had to work evenings.
On Friday night, after services, I asked an Air Force chaplain then serving his third tour in Germany, if he could recommend a local car dealer.
"Sure," he said "I've bought four or five cars from Werner Herrmann. A mensch. And he’s part Jewish."
"Oh, he’s not observant. But he had a Jewish great-grandmother, and that was enough that during the war, although they were Lutherans, his family made him join the Navy. They didn't seem to care that he was one-sixteenth Jewish. That got him through the war."
"And he's an honest man?"
"Honest as any car dealer I know," said the rabbi.
Herrmann was a perpetually smiling man in his fifties, not very tall. Almost bald, he carefully combed a few remaining strands of dark hair across the vast expanse of his scalp. He spoke colloquial English with the merest trace of an accent. Herrmann showed me around his lot, but most of the two dozen cars he had were about the same age as my VW.
"And what would strike your fancy, Captain?" asked Herrmann.
"Maybe a BMW or a Mercedes. Something two or three years old."
“A tough order. We Germans take care of our cars, and we tend to keep them a long time. Why don't you consider a new Mercedes?"
"I'm not sure I could afford one. And, I'm told, it takes as much as a year to get one. They build each car to order."
"That's true. But there might be a way to get one faster. In two or three months, more or less, if you can wait that long."
"How can I get a new Mercedes that quick?"
"Well, sometimes a car is delivered, and the buyer changes his mind. He doesn't like the color, or he's not satisfied with the options."
"Wait a year for a car, then send it back because of the color?"
"Absolutely. And at other times, a car will be built for export, but then the deal goes bad and the dealer doesn't have a customer. So he has either to front the money himself and hope to sell the car, or cancel the order. Because once they accept an order, the factory must build the car.”
"And every year there are also a few cars that are delivered, and accepted, and then the owner for some reason decides he doesn't like it. We Germans are very finicky about some things, you know."
"So there's something wrong with these cars?"
"No. Not usually. It's more like, he doesn't like the upholstery, or his wife doesn't, or he thinks he should have ordered a bigger engine, or a smaller one, something like that. And so these cars come back to the factory with a few thousand kilometers on them. That's nothing for a Mercedes. Not even starting to wear in. So they have to resell them."
"And you can get one of them?"
"I have a friend, a broker. He puts buyers and sellers together."
That week I visited all the used car lots near Kaiserslautern, but none offered anything better than basic transportation. I'd replaced the broken wire on my VW and it was running fine; I was almost ready to forget about a new car. Then Herrmann called. He had a nearly-new Mercedes. Less than five thousand kilometers, metallic blue with gray upholstery, a five-speed manual transmission, and a sunroof. Was I interested?
"How much?” I asked.
"About $5,600," he said. “In Deutschmarks, of course.”
That was a healthy sum for us. But the moment that I saw the car, I fell in love with it. It was more car than I had ever hoped to own, and it was $1,000 less than a new one. There was one tiny flaw, something few would even notice: a piece of chrome below the trunk said 280SE, meaning that the car had fuel injection, while in actuality, the car was a 280S, with conventional carburetion.
I gave Herrmann a deposit, called my bank in Maryland and got a loan, and four days later I was driving a Mercedes. A wonderful window opened. I went on weekend trips to the great cities of Europe—to Antwerp, Paris, Amsterdam, and Munich—flashing down the autobahn in comfort and safety at almost 100 mph.
About two months after the Mercedes came into our lives, a little man in a large floppy felt hat and a brown suit, shiny from too many ironings, marched into my office, followed by a uniformed cop, one of the biggest men I have ever seen. The little man held out a worn leather case with a German police identification card. Its photo showed a man with a cruel mouth, small, soulless eyes, a falcon's nose far too big for its face, and bushy hair. There was no hair on the head of the man standing before me, quivering with excitement. Aside from that, he was unmistakably the same person. Shivering with apprehension, I felt like I had suddenly yanked from my world of military order into a movie, and I couldn’t find the script.
"You are Herr Hauptman Norman Farkas?" he said with a thick, guttural accent, like a character from a Dashiell Hammett movie.
"Yes, I'm Captain Farkas. What I can I do for you?"
"You are the owner of Mercedes-Benz Model 280, engine number aye arr, one, eight, one, seven, seven, four, nine, one?"
"Well, maybe. I don't know the engine number. What's this about?"
"This automobile is in your possession at this time?"
"Out in the parking lot. What is this about, please?"
"We will inspect this automobile now."
"Can you tell me what this is about?"
"We will inspect this automobile, NOW!"
I got up and followed the little man out into the parking lot, the uniformed cop trailing us. When I got to my car, I read off the number from a plate on the dashboard.
"Ja," said the little man, consulting a notebook. "We will return to your office now." He snapped the notebook shut and put it in his breast pocket.
"Would you mind telling me what this is all about?"
"We WILL return to your office NOW!" he bellowed.
Back in my office, bursting with curiosity, I asked again, “What is this all about?"
"You will sit down, please."
"Sure, but what is this about? Something wrong?"
"YOU WILL SIT DOWN!"
"Hauptman Herr Norman Farkas, I officially inform you that Mercedes-Benz Model 280, serial number aye arr, one, eight, one, seven, seven, four, nine, one is a stolen vehicle. You will not attempt to remove it from the Federal Republic of Germany. You will not attempt to sell it. You are NOT a suspect in any crime. You will hear from us."
Without another word, the little man turned on his heel and marched out of my office, trailed by the monster in uniform.
I sat, stunned, for several minutes. Then I called the office of the Staff Judge Advocate, where a neighbor of mine worked.
"Ken, Norm Farkas. I just had the weirdest visitor. German cop. Says my Mercedes is a stolen car."
"You're my sixth today. And four yesterday,” he said.
"Holy shit. Does that mean I'm screwed? Am I going to lose the car?"
"Looks that way. But don't do anything until I tell you. I'm sorry this happened, I know how much you like your new car."
"Let me know if you hear anything."
I dialed the prefix for an outside line. Maybe Herrmann knew what was going on. I let the phone ring for five minutes, but there was no answer. I tried again at half-hour intervals, but still, no one answered. At five I locked up my desk and drove to Herrmann's lot. The gates were padlocked, and a strip of orange tape ran across the office door. Something was posted on the door, but it was too far to read. I drove to the police station to see my boss's poker pal, an English-speaking traffic investigator.
"I'm trying to find Werner Herrmann," I said. "You know, the car dealer?"
"Try the jail. But I doubt they allow him visitors."
I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. "Jail?"
"You bought one of that Jew's 'almost new' Mercedes?"
I nodded, not trusting my voice.
"Too bad. A terrible mess, this is."
As the story in Overseas Weekly explained, a week later, at least 89 American soldiers were victims of the scam, which took advantage of a loophole in the German automobile registration system. When a German bought a used car, he took the title–-a little gray book–to a police station, where the car's engine number was punched into a terminal linked to a nationwide computer system. If ownership was verified, the buyer was allowed to register. But there was no way for the US military to access the computer system; repeated requests to do just that were turned down by the Bonn government, which regarded US access to their computer as an infringement of German sovereignty. So those in the American military needed only a bill of sale to get a US Forces license plate.
As the story explained, a German mastermind had hired several Yugoslavian mechanics and told them to find jobs in Mercedes dealerships. They secretly copied keys to cars brought in for servicing, and at the first opportunity stole the cars from their owners. The cars were driven to a farm in the Harz Mountains, where superficial changes were made to each. For example, the article said, optional chrome trim might be switched between two cars. The cars were wholesaled to dealers who dealt with Americans and provided with authentic-looking title books purchased illegally from wrecking yards, each with a forged page replacing the one with the engine number.
I contacted my insurance company. So sorry, they said, but my policy didn't cover a clouded title. I wrote my bank and explained the situation. A very nice loan officer telephoned to say that while I still had to pay the $5,000 I'd borrowed, they would give me two additional years to pay, and they would lower the interest rate one point.
A few days after that, a terse note arrived by Bundespost, the German postal system, from the city police. I was ordered to deliver the Mercedes to a town about 250 miles away.
I called Ken again. He told me that the Kaiserslautern High Court had no jurisdiction over me. The provisions of a decades-old treaty between the US and the Federal Republic of Germany held that all civil actions between a US serviceman and any agency of the German government must begin by the Germans notifying the US Ambassador, who would forward the complaint through military channels to the soldier’s commander. The commander would then communicate back to the Ambassador, through channels, a response to the charge. The disposition of each case would take place between representatives of the respective national governments.
“So I don’t have to surrender the car?” I asked Ken.
“Technically, no. But in reality, the local authorities will arrest you, hold you in a prison for up to a week, and then notify the US Ambassador. They will then release you and apologize. But, they will keep the car. So the question is, do you want to spend a week or so in jail?”
I wrote the police a polite letter informing them that my military duties didn't permit me to deliver the car to the place they asked. About a week later I got a curt note telling me the bailiff of the Kaiserslautern High Court would contact me to make arrangements to pick it up.
At 11:00 Saturday morning the doorbell rang and there was a thin, balding man in baggy workman’s clothing shifting his feet awkwardly as he handed me a police document in English and German. "Please give me the car keys," he said.
The license plates were US Forces property. I had to turn them back to the Provost Marshal. "I have to take off the license plates," I replied.
The man became agitated. "But Herr Hauptman, I am a civil employee. I have no authorization to drive a car without plates."
"Then you have a problem. The plates belong to the US Government."
He scratched his head. "Take them, then. I'll be back in one hour."
He returned with a lowboy, a big tractor-trailer with a rear ramp. The plates under my arm, I gave him the keys and watched my car vanish.
In the next few days, I got together with other victims of the "Hot Wheels Club" and retained a German attorney to sue Herrmann. The lawyer wasn't optimistic. "He owns nothing in his own name except a few old cars. The business property is leased. Everything else belongs to his wife. But we will see," he said, shrugging as if to say "don't expect too much."
In the end, all I got out of Herrmann was one of the cars on his lot, a shabby, ten-year-old Opal Cadet worth maybe $500.
The same week, I came down on orders for Korea. I was to depart in early November; a brief leave en route was authorized. Then I got a notice from the High Court. I was to pay 101.50 Deutschmarks–about $35–for the truck that the bailiff used to haul the Mercedes away. I threw the notice away. A week later, a second one came. I threw it away, as I did the third, which came five days after the second.
With six days until my departure, I had my household goods packed and shipped, turned my government furniture back to Quartermaster, and spent my days briefing my replacement;
On the morning of my fifth-to-last day, I got a special delivery letter at the office. The court ordered me to pay the 101.50 marks within seven days or face arrest. I was pissed. I mean, I was the victim here. I was the one out $5,000. I sat down at an office typewriter and spent the whole day writing and re-writing a three-page letter to the court.
The first page, in summary, said: "Fuck you, we won the war." The second page explained that none of this could have happened if the German government had let the US Forces check vehicle ownership in their stupid computer and that because of the Status of Forces Treaty, the Kaiserslautern High Court lacked jurisdiction to compel me to do anything.
The last page explained that I was the victim; it was unreasonable to charge me this fee, and I wasn't going to pay.
It was a good letter and I felt much better after writing it. I made only one mistake. I mailed it, forgetting about the Bundespost's excellent, overnight service to even the most distant corners of the country.
The day before my scheduled departure, I left the office at noon and went by the PX for some last-minute purchases. The PX manager found me in the toiletries section. "Your colonel is on the phone," he said.
"Six of the toughest-looking German cops I've ever seen just left my office," said my battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hughes. "They have a warrant for your arrest. What the hell did you say in that letter?"
I told him.
"If they can't take a joke, I guess I'll just pay the damn thirty-five dollars," I said.
"Too late for that. They've got a list of charges."
"What am I supposed to have done, defamed the great German people with my little nastygram?"
"Don't try to be cute, Farkas. It doesn't suit you."
"I didn't read the whole list. One said you could get four years. Now maybe it's all bull, but you don't want to test them on this. I called your buddy, Ken something—"
"At the Staff Judge Advocate?"
"Yeah. He said to take the warrant very seriously. And he said the smartest thing to do is not get arrested. So don't go back to your quarters. Don't come to the office. Stay away from all the gasthauses. Get lost until dark, then go to Major Ashe's house.”
Ashe was the battalion executive officer. He had a French wife, who was a glorious cook, and I had often dined at his table. "Yes, sir. About three miles out of Landstuhl, the south road."
"Good. Stay there tonight. I'll have someone go by your quarters and pick up your gear. I'll get you to the airport."
Hughes came for me just at first light in a camouflaged jeep with half a dozen radio antennae bobbing from it. His driver stowed my suitcase and duffle bag in a two-wheeled, canvas-topped trailer behind his jeep. I got in the back seat. Avoiding the autobahn, we drove back roads to Frankfurt, a route over 100 miles longer than the autobahn route, to Rhein-Main Air Force Base near Frankfurt.
It was late afternoon and light snow was falling as we neared the air base. The base shared runways with Frankfurt International Airport; one side of the field had a military terminal and aerial port facilities, the other housed their civilian counterparts.
Colonel Hughes took my paperwork and walked it through the Military Airlift Command (MAC) formalities while I hid behind canvas side curtains in the jeep.
As I waited. the snow became heavier, the day gloomier. Three Mercedes-Benz diesel sedans, painted in dark green with a broad, wrap-around band of black-and-white squares, pulled up to the terminal. Six large, uniformed and armed policeman and a tiny man in a brown suit and a floppy felt hat ran inside.
I felt the terror that drove thousands from Germany a generation earlier. What if they catch me? Will I go to jail? Did someone tell them that I'm a Jew?
Minutes later, Hughes returned with a conspiratorial gleam in his eye and handed me a boarding pass. He directed the driver on a roundabout route through the base. Eventually, we were on an unpaved access road near the end of a runway. The driver backed the jeep deep into a copse of trees bordering the runway and shut the engine off. In minutes snow completely covered the jeep. Then, abruptly, it stopped. The skies cleared.
But the runways were strangely frozen. Every few minutes, a plane landed. But none took off. The German police were searching the terminal, boarding every departing aircraft and looking at every passenger.
We sat in the frigid woods for over an hour before departures resumed. Plane after plane moved past us to the end of the runway, turned into the wind, and took off into the starry night. Finally, a huge Saturn Airlines Boeing 727 lumbered down the runway toward us, slowing before rocking to a halt in front of our hidden jeep. The landing lights flashed once, twice, three times.
"That's you," said Colonel Hughes, and flashed the jeep headlights three times.
"How the hell did you arrange that?" I asked.
"None of your business," said Hughes. "Wait until he turns around."
The plane turned slowly on its landing gear until the tail pointed at our jeep. "Now," said Hughes. "Good luck, Farkas. Let me hear from you."
"How can I ever thank you, sir?"
"Remember me in your memoirs. And next time, don't mail the letter."
"Thanks again, sir."
"Get out there before he leaves without you."
As I stepped out of the jeep, a hatch below the Boeing's tail opened. A stairwell ramp descended to jet-melted slush. I picked my way carefully, getting snow in my shoes, avoiding the deeper drifts, until I reached concrete. Headlights swept across the plane from the access road. Two dark sedans sped towards the woods, diesel engines chattering above the roar of idling jets. Flashing blue lights and singsong sirens approached.
Slipping and sliding across the icy runway, I heard the shriek of brakes. Car doors slammed. Heavy boots crunched snow.
Silhouetted by glaring headlamps, indistinct shapes ran toward me from the darkness.
Stomach churning, heart racing, I reached the ramp, soaked with sweat despite the freezing air. A male flight attendant threw my suitcase and duffel bag through the open hatch, and then shoved me up the stairs. The engines changed pitch, roaring with ferocious energy. As I entered the cabin and fell into an open seat, the plane rocked on its gear.
I thought I heard a shout as the hatch slammed shut behind me. Heads craned and eyes questioned as my trembling fingers wrestled with the seatbelt buckle. I felt the plane rolling forward. Still trying to catch my breath, we hurtled skyward. I let out a big sigh and silently thanked God for sending Colonel Hughes to save me from the Germans.
Across the aisle, a nicely dressed fortyish woman leaned toward me. “What was that?” she said. “Why didn’t you board from the terminal?”
A moment later a deep male voice announced that we had entered French airspace, and then a female flight attendant appeared to save me from answering.
“The captain would like to see you,” she said.
I followed her to the cockpit, and the captain shook my hand. “Dick Hughes was my West Point roommate for two years,” he said. “Lucky for you I saw him at the ticket counter.”
“I think you may have saved my life, sir,” I said.
“Naw. They’d have let you go after ten or twelve years,” he said, then laughed.
“What was in that letter you sent?”
© 1971 Marvin J. Wolf
On the morning flight in, I sat next to Irwin, a bulky, rumpled, oversized manufacturer's rep for a line of pharmaceutical machinery. An engaging fellow, he was conversant in Latin and German and bubbled over with baseball lore and astute insights on events social and political. I was headed to a professional symposium and he for some sort of medical convention. He seemed affable enough and this was my first visit to New Orleans, we agreed to meet for dinner. I told him my hotel, the Crescent, but forgot to ask his.
We had exchanged business cards, but after changing clothes and enduring two agonizingly long-winded speakers, by late afternoon I'd mislaid his card. As I grew hungry, I thought about calling a few of the bigger hotels, but then I couldn't remember his last name. It was something vaguely Slavic, perhaps Polish.
It was one of those stultifying late summer days when even the breeze off the river didn't help. I ventured briefly onto my hotel's inner veranda, but the oppressive heat and humidity drove me back inside. Suddenly exhausted from my long trip and a tedious day of note-taking, I retreated to the cool comfort of my room and ordered from room service. By eight, when it was almost dark outside, I was comfortably full, stretched out on the bed watching the Braves throttle the Cubs on cable.
I had almost nodded off when someone knocked softly on my door. For a long moment I considered getting up to answer it. But I knew nobody in town except this Irwin fellow, and I was no longer in the mood for conversation. Had he phoned, I certainly would have answered, but moving seemed like too much trouble. I lay inert and after a few minutes imagined that I heard footsteps moving away from my door.
Half undressed, I fell into an uneasy slumber. I awoke from some ugly dream to what I fancied was a muffled scream down the corridor. Unbolting my door, I cautiously peered in both directions but saw and heard nothing. It was past midnight. I stripped off the rest of my clothes and went back to bed.
I overslept and missed both breakfast and the morning's first workshop. By noon I was feeling punk; one of my infrequent migraines was inbound and my empty stomach had turned sour. In search of seltzer, I ducked into the bar, where a newspaper lay open next to the register. A headline thrust at me:
MIDWEST MAN STABBED IN CITY HOTEL
The hastily-written front page story said that one Irwin Patrinic, 43, a salesman from Moline, Ill., had been found murdered in a ninth-floor room at the Crescent Hotel.
My testicles crawled into my belly. A shiver flashed down my spine: My room was on the ninth floor. I systematically searched each of my pockets yet again; this time I came up with the misplaced card. The machinery merchant was Irwin Z. Patrynic—just one letter different from the name in the paper. It had to be the same man.
Suddenly ill, I hurried to the men's room and knelt before the porcelain, my mind reeling even as my guts tied themselves in knots. Yesterday Irwin was alive. We had cracked wise together about airplane food and the little indignities of traveling coach. He'd mentioned a wife, children, parents. Now he was a corpse: According to the paper, he had been savagely beaten, perhaps tortured, and his throat slit from ear to ear. Was it he who had tapped on my door? Had I answered the door, might I have saved his life?
Wracked with guilt, I returned to the bar and snatched up the newspaper. There was a little more to read: The victim, identified from the contents of his wallet, was not registered at the hotel and the room where he'd been found was that of a Jesuit en route to a mission in the Amazon. The priest's luggage was in the room, but he had not been seen since checking in.
I tried to push this out of my mind and continue with workshops and symposia, but it was all too much. At noon, tottering from the migraine, I retreated to my room, hung out the "Do Not Disturb" sign, threw the deadbolt, took my prescription painkillers, went to bed, and sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When I awoke the next day it was well past noon and the events I had come to attend were all but over. I decided to skip the farewell cocktails and fly home at once. I checked out and let the doorman hail me a cab.
The driver was an older man, deferential but overtalkative. "I see you survived the Crescent Hotel," he chirped.
I nodded, unwilling to be drawn in.
"Did you see that priest before he got himself murdered?" he said, persisting.
Not wanting to continue the conversation but unable to stop myself from setting him straight, I answered,
"He wasn't a priest. A machinery salesman from Moline."
"That's what the cops thought at first--didn't you see the TV? Come to find out, the priest in that room had gone by the archdiocese, picked up some money—thousands!—and then disappeared. So they sent somebody down the morgue. That body wasn't no salesman. It was the padre! Whoever killed him, they musta took his cash, then put that salesman guy's wallet in his pocket."
So Patrynic might be alive, I thought, still confused.
We pulled up to the curbside baggage check-in and I hopped out, eager to leave New Orleans. I cleared the TSA checkpoint with no time to spare; my flight had already been called. Hurrying toward my gate, I stumbled and fell to my knees. As I got up I saw, from the corner of my eye, the unmistakable bulk of a man I knew among a group boarding a Brazilian flight. It took me a moment to put it together: black suit, white shirt and Roman collar. A priest—but his arms were too long for the jacket. At the boarding door, Patrynic paused to look over his shoulder. For an instant our glances met. The look on his face made my blood run cold.
I was obliged to recite this story to three different policemen, and then an FBI agent, so of course I missed my flight.
© Marvin J. Wolf
I think it was Rebecca who first noticed the odor. It was faint, but once she had mentioned it, the smell was unmistakable: it was the same musky aroma that a woman exudes during sex. And yet it was clearly not her own scent. My wife's musk was somehow different, more emphatic perhaps. Less subtle.
At first we joked about it. We had dated for years but were newlyweds and our household was a collection of used furniture. It included a well-worn mattress that she'd inherited from her brother. We replaced the mattress, but from time to time the odd odor continued to make itself apparent.
There was a heating vent in the wall near our bed, so I hired an air conditioning technician to clean our system. It didn't stop the odor. I crawled underneath the house with a flashlight, but could find no trace of anything that might cause an odor. Supposing it might be some kind of insect or rodent, we fumigated the entire house.
As time went on we noticed that the odor seemed to appear only at bed time, and only in a very limited area around the bed. When we invited late evening visitors into our bedroom to sniff around, most confirmed our observation.
One night David smelled it. He was in his late fifties; since my wife, as a teen, had fled her own brutal and abusive parents, he had become her unofficial father. "This is interesting," said David. "In a strange way, it almost reminds me of Sophie."
His eyes filled and he looked away. Sophie had died the year before, cut down by cancer in her early forties. She had been a lovely woman, both inside and out, and David remained devoted to her memory. So did Rebecca, who though only 14 years her junior, had regarded Sophie as a second mother.
As time went on, the odor seemed to intensify. Then David said that he wasn't sure, but it seemed to him sometimes that the odor had mysteriously appeared in his own bedroom. We began calling back and forth, and as far as we could determine, the odd smell never appeared simultaneously in both our houses. After a while, David said that he suspected that the odor might be a type of paranormal phenomenon.
"You mean a ghost?" said Rebecca, who professed to believe in life after death.
"A spirit, perhaps," offered David, a wry smile on his lips. “A death shadow, as a poet might write.”
David's sense of humor sometimes borders on the outrageous, so at first I thought he was kidding. "I don't believe this," I said. "Ghosts? Spirits? Come on."
"At least open yourself to the possibility," said Rebecca.
David had a distant kinsman who taught parapsychology at a nearby university. He offered to invite the professor over for a consultation. I said it was silly.
After David left, Rebecca and I argued over my reaction. She had a notion that Sophie, or her spirit, might be the source of the smell. I said that bringing in some crackpot psychic investigator was a waste of time. "There are no such things as spirits of the dead," I insisted. Rebecca took my vehemence as an insult to her beliefs. As usual when we began at polar opposites on a subject, we quarrelled late into the night. We both awoke grumpy and unrested.
To make peace, I surrendered. I told her, "We'll just talk to this guy and see what happens." So David called his cousin, who turned out to be a skeptical man of considerable learning and great charm. He came to dinner, chatted with us for a couple of hours about the smell, about our relationships with Sophie, about all sorts of things that had no apparent linkage with ghosts or spirits.
"Is there any unfinished business between you and Sophie?" asked the professor.
"I don't think so," said Rebecca.
Sophie had known her cancer was incurable for nearly a year and had systematically gone about preparing for her death. She and Rebecca had spent many hours together talking; my wife had been in the room when Sophie expired, a peaceful exit eased by massive doses of morphine.
"There couldn't be," I said.
This was a lie. When Sophie had learned that she might have only months to live, she had re-examined her life and decided to make some changes. She took up skydiving and broke silk eight or ten times before she became too weak to handle the shrouds. She learned to snorkel and to ski. She read books that she'd put aside years earlier. She sampled new and wildly different cuisine, even taught herself a little French. And Sophie, who in all her life had been sexually intimate only with David, discreetly seduced a few carefully selected men and boys.
She had wanted to find out if there was more to sex than what her husband offered. And so one day she came on to me. I am ashamed to say that I let things go a bit too far. We never had sex, but we did nearly everything else. When I realized that what I was doing might hurt David or Rebecca, I backed off. Sophie nevertheless continued to pursue me, persisting in her advances until a few weeks before her death.
I was not about to share any of this with a stranger, much less with my wife. But now I began to wonder if there was indeed some possibility that the strange odor was Sophie's shade, intent in death on reminding me of what I had refused her in life.
So I allowed the academic to bring his apparatus into our home. I watched carefully as he set up strange instruments and took measurements from the gauges. I began to read all sorts of meanings into his mumbled musings. After two weeks of this, the professor came to the conclusion that it was possible that a ghost or spirit was responsible for our bedroom odor.
"We cannot be sure there's a spirit involved, of course," he said. "But if I had time and budget, I'd be inclined to investigate this phenomenon at greater length."
The odor persisted at bedtime and the more I thought about it, the more I thought about Sophie and what he had shared and how she had lived the last year of her life, the more I became convinced that there was a ghost, that it was the ghost of Sophie and that she was reminding me with her scent of that ultimate intimacy I had denied her.
Finally, I had to tell Rebecca.
She took it poorly, raging at me, cursing my name, questioning my sanity. Even though I repeatedly assured her that I had not had sex with Sophie, that what had happened between us grew out of my sense of wanting to comfort a doomed woman, my wife could not forgive me. For several nights she slept on the sofa in the den. Then she moved to a friend's apartment and finally into her own place.
We went to counseling. After a few sessions, we attempted a reconciliation. We spent an intimate and hopeful weekend in her flat, but the following week, when she returned to the little house that had been mine for years before our marriage, she was unable to sleep. She said that the spectral odor which still hovered about my bed kept her awake remembering my infidelity.
She filed for divorce. Not wanting to prolong the pain, I didn't contest it.
Nevertheless, I was devastated at the notion of never again being intimate with Rebecca. Eventually, of course, I came to accept the way things had turned out. I was still in my thirties, made a good living and was and in good shape; I was sure that I would find someone else. And Rebecca, so beautiful, poised and industrious, would have no difficulty attracting suitors. Unable to put Sophie aside and remain lovers, we resolved to become friends; on the evening of the day our interlocutory decree was finalized, we went to dinner to celebrate the dissolution of our marriage and the beginning of our new relationship.
It was a little after nine when I returned home. In the bedroom a shaded lamp hung as always from the ceiling directly over the bed, but as I walked in and flipped the wall switch, there was a flash of blue-green: The bulb had burned out.
I found a new one in a kitchen cabinet and returned with a stepladder and a flashlight. After removing the old bulb, I saw a narrow arc of darkened paint at the apex of the shade. There was also a little printed warning that I'd never noticed:
CAUTION: To reduce the risk of fire, use 60 watt type T or smaller lamp.
I turned the fragile glass over in my hand and shined the flashlight on it. It was rated at 100 watts. Suddenly seized by a thought, I climbed the last step on the ladder and put my nose on the shade next to the vacant socket. Inhaling deeply, I detected what until then I had taken as the scent of a woman's musk.
After screwing in a 60 watt bulb, I was never again troubled by the faint odor of scorching paint. Sometime later, when I told David, he confessed that he suspected that he had only imagined that the odor was present in his own bedroom.
Copyright © 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.