A sojourn in St. Petersburg creates an odd resonance for Minta Castelberry, touring this most European of Russian cities, with her mother-in-law. Here the women find themselves accosted by the insinuating stranger, John Emmett. Emmett insists on telling his story, and Minta soon finds his arrogance hides a melancholy soul…and finds herself invested in his quest. Then she finds this crossing of paths is no coincidence.

 

Jump to page 11

 


 

Are You Alienated
Are You Alienated

 

Everyone moved with a purpose. The doors opened; the queue bunched…like the oysters of Walrus and Carpenter fame, the group were mostly fat; and many, by this time, winded. Their Americanness did not stand out badly. They were tourists, but wore what everyone wore, parkas and windbreakers, jeans or cargo pants, sneakers. At their sides their nylon sleeves, as they pressed onwards, swished. Those who had come prepared to photograph everything were strapped from left shoulder to right hip, left hip to right shoulder, black zippered bags bumping. Over their shoulders swung massive-lensed Nikons and Olympias.

Blood had spilled here; sorrow, biding its time, had smoldered here, restrained behind intentful eyes…hatred had flared in revolution. Today, the square’s indifferent paving blocks were trodden by spongy petro-chemical outsoles. The guide took his post at the top of the stairs; his assistant counted heads, the group drifted to their lodestar and lodged in a roughly deltoid shape, fanning wider towards the rear. Stragglers, reconnecting, gulped their way to the bin, dropping off bottles and cups.

They were cold. They were weary on their feet, but they had another museum to cope with. Clouds pushed across the blue sky with a fulsome ionic weight bellying their mid-sections. The sun vanished. The idling bus drew wistful glances.

Minta Castelberry scuttled through the glass door, carrying her two plastic-handled shopping bags. Her purse slumped off her shoulder and came to rest, annoyingly, in the crook of an elbow; around her neck, her own camera (a small ELPH) was swinging on its lanyard. She spotted a bench, and veered from the group. This bench and its alcove were ideally proportioned to one another, and with unapologetic aggression Minta spread her burdens to either side. A tee-shirt slipped its bag, and dropped to the floor.

“Put both of those in the same one,” Mrs. Castelberry said. “Why do you wanna carry two?”

Minta’s mother-in-law had doubly secured her cross-body bag, zipping its steel-wired strap under her vest’s mesh security pockets. She wore black yoga pants. The pants had sporty white stripes, but for exigency’s sake, she allowed these. Her shoes were blunt and bloated, and might have been created by injecting foam insulation into a clog-form.


Continued from “symptoms of progress”

Mrs. Castelberry shopped for clothes every day, if TV counted. She didn’t buy…but kept avid tabs on price, length, fabric, workmanship (“which with the computers you never find anymore”). She knew everything in stores had been tried on—was therefore too much money for not being really new. And everything you got mail order had been sent back…they just threw it in the plastic bag and shipped it out again. And anyway, they only made clothes these days for young people. Half Minta’s mother-in-law’s conversations dwelt on these unhappy symptoms of progress.

Mrs. Castelberry grunted, then heaved a labored breath. She squatted and flailed after the shirt. Minta, feeling by this show of effort obligated, pushed herself upright. She folded the bag no longer needed, stuffed it to the bottom of the other (extra padding for a gift-boxed set of glass ornaments: eggs in the style of Fabergé). She held the bag open, while her mother-in-law stood for a moment, tucking and folding. Mrs. Castelberry began to snug the shirt in place, then said, “Gimme that. Move your stuff, I gotta sit down.”

Minta said, “Oh, boy, my arches.”

“You wear the wrong shoes.”

“Mom”—Minta tugged at her purse—”if your feet are okay, you should go look at the museum. One of us should.”

“I don’t like paintings.”

“They have a whole room full of jewelry.”

“It’s fake,” Mrs. Castelberry said. “They keep the real stuff in a vault. I don’t have to walk to look at glass.”

Their group meanwhile filtered away. Dr. Slater’s voice faded into the main gallery, floating aloft, descending over his bald and leathery head, upon the ears of his followers, “…a work on a monumental scale, noted chiefly for its subject, which, if you have read Tolstoy…” His assistant, Cammie, stared back at the Castelberrys. Her smile was anxious, her eyes bugged; her expression said, “Don’t make trouble for me.” The Castelberry women shook their heads, and shooed their hands at Cammie.

 

1

 


 

Their tour group tended, as well as to carry too many accessories, to over-bundle against the weather. The lobby echoed with the sounds of peeling garments, tinkling buckles, shooshing zippers, clacking plastic, the occasional dwoink of a stubbed toe. Minus the group, its ambient noise was much reduced. Another voice, one of finicking enunciation and showy mannerism, encroached. The voice grew louder as the man filming himself with his phone, walker closer.

He danced weight from foot to foot, perfecting a position before the lens. He was now (per Dr. Slater) Maréchal Michel Ney, framed by the battle of Jena, fought—behind the figure hidden by his own—in hot contention. Anyone’s ordinary living room wall would have come, as to this painting’s scope, well short…even the palace-sized museum wall could display nothing else. Its vastness rendered its subject near life-like.

“Now, what I find interesting…”

His whitish blond hair, razored to a length not much longer than that of his faintly seen lashes, did not so much recede from his forehead, as recede from the foreground. He faced the Castelberry women, and gazed with an oblique squint, not making eye contact, but beginning to address body language to them.

“…is that public edifices…”

He extended the hand with the phone farther, for a wider view. He airily flicked fingers over and behind his head; he half-closed his eyes and smiled at himself.

“…such as this space-occupying academic blight, were intended to be instructional. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, there existed no aesthetic informed by popular taste. The rich man’s ormolu candlestick, his plate and china, his absurdly heroic depictions of famous battles, his coy mythological pornography—these were means of communication. The message long since has lost its piquancy. And yet, today we discover housed too often in publicly funded museums, such collections of mediocre artifacts, the harvest of a mediocre period. A myth is now perpetrated upon the citizenry, that some defunct dynasty’s dreary tat can rank among the world’s treasures, rather than admit these so many erstwhile status symbols of royalist propaganda…that if sold would not un-profit humanity’s common heritage.”

Now he looked directly at Minta. Meaning nothing, other than a reflexive friendliness, she nodded to him. He approached, amid a display of unhurried busyness, looking down as he strolled, at his phone, and tapping. Attached to his belt was a slim, black, box-shaped gadget. It whirred. A piece of paper began to emerge from a slot at its base.

“My card,” the man told Minta, extracting the paper, and handing it to her. It had curled into a parabola; it felt slightly warm. “I am, of course, John Emmett. Shall I join you?”

He’d made it impossible to say no. She scooted, snagging her purse and drawing it onto her lap. Mrs. Castelberry, who had stared in a fixed and disbelieving way at Emmett from the moment he’d entered the museum’s lobby, pushed herself against the wall. Emmett dropped companionably between them.

Minta said, “My name is Minta Castelberry.”

He changed his phone from right hand to left. He held it out and up, checking the framing of himself, in the act of shaking hands. “We make new friends along the way,” he narrated. “Smile, love, for the camera.” He turned to Mrs. Castelberry. “Now, who are you?”

Not your beeswax, her face was telling him, but she answered, “I’m Valerie.”

He unsnapped the breast pocket of his cargo vest, and slipped the phone inside. “The Castelberry women,” he said, “are of Russian descent?”

“No,” Minta said. “I don’t think so.”

“Ah. You wish merely to further your education?”

“What education?” This from Valerie.

The women had sat taking in all that could be gleaned without budging, of the glass display cases (the nearest holding a military helmet, a sword, and some medals), and the corner statuary, uncurious to read the cards that explained them. The lobby, Valerie had remarked a minute or two ago, is where they keep the junk no one wants to steal. But she rose, picking up the shopping bag. She stared…and Minta avoided her eye.

 

2

 


 

“One,” said Emmett, “ought never speculate as to another person’s education. However, I have come to St. Petersburg in the hope of learning…” He turned fully to Minta, not caring that half his audience had left him.

“…you will be interested to know what.”

She sat close enough to scrutinize Emmett’s pallid, preternaturally smooth skin. His eyes, though, were brown, rather than the watery blue she would have expected. It was the one thing, she thought, that made him attractive.

“Well…what?”

“Are you permitted autonomy, or must you remain tethered to Dr. Slater and his minion?” Emmett asked.

This startled her. “Are you with the tour? I never saw you.” Neither could she believe it. Emmett seemed incapable of keeping quiet…and had a man of his alien appearance done so while lurking in the background, the effect would have been conspicuous…if not disturbing.

“Do you use Android?” He contrived an expression combining condescension with distaste, a simultaneous half-smile and pursing of the lips.

“I…don’t think so.

“I expect you do. But give me your phone. Have you ever paired it?”

Minta snagged her purse and rooted. This, she thought, is how stupid people get themselves in trouble. Emmett, chuckling at her wide-eyed shake of the head, had answered with an offensive “gimme” gesture.

He tapped and scrolled, scrolled and tapped. Once, he snorted, and twice chuckled. He drew Minta’s purse towards himself, taking hold, with thumb and forefinger, of its decorative tassel. He dropped her phone inside. He did these things with a conscious implication that the squishy Italian leather, with all its hardware and trimmings, made for a silly object.

“You’re staying at the Baltic. Actually, it’s a decent hotel. Did you want to have dinner with me?”

Minta shrugged, about to say, “You mean both of us?” But Emmett appeared dismay-proof.

“Expect me to show up, then.” He stood, and walked away.

 

In the hotel bathroom, she saw her face brightly illuminated. The hollows of her eyes were erased. I look good, Minta thought.

Her house had one bathroom. The window had been covered by the previous owner in sticky, frosted plastic. Quentin had told her she could buy solvent to remove this. He was right. She could learn what she needed to know, and do the work herself.

The plastic remained, peeling at the edges, dirt and hair caught in the glue. The window faced the door. The sink was tucked away in a little alcove, opposite the linen closet. An overhead globe was the only light by which Minta ordinarily saw herself, while making up her face.

“Why don’t we,” she said to Mrs. Castelberry, “try one of the restaurants in town?”

“We’re leaving tomorrow. It’s a bad time to get lost.”

“Look.” Minta herself looked, putting a knee on the heater, and craning to view the street below. She heard her mother-in-law gasp, rolled her eyes, then wondered too late if the glass had shown this like a mirror. The whole trip, she’d given way to Valerie’s fear of heights—the reason they could never open curtains. All their meals were taken within the safety zone of their hotels. Minta now and then prodded her mother-in-law’s boundaries…but she knew better.

“Mom. Just standing here, I see two or three places. It’s not possible for us to get lost.”

“If we stay at the hotel, we know where we are.”

“People speak English everywhere,” Minta told her.

“You think.”

 

3

 


Continued from “You think”

 

They heard a low buzzing. Slowly, this segued into a sustained tone; gradually, it took on a musical character, albeit atonal. Glass seemed to break. The noise came from the nightstand between the two beds. Mrs. Castelberry rolled her own eyes. She had her son to blame, however…it was Quentin who’d customized his wife’s phone. Quentin, whose eyes were a watery blue, but whose hair was black, had looked at Minta, frank with literal-mindedness, and said, “You can get rid of it if you don’t like it.”

He knew she couldn’t, unless she asked him to help her.

Certainly, when Quentin called and Minta found herself embarrassed at the grocery, or in line at the ATM, she never failed to snatch her phone at once. She didn’t know what industrial clanking, what graveyard shrieks, might erupt from her purse if she allowed the clip to play itself out. She would rather not know.

Her hand within an inch of grasping it, the phone silenced itself. Its screen flashed, and a new image appeared.

“I am waiting for you outside your door,” John Emmett spoke.

“Don’t open it!” Valerie darted into the bathroom. She darted out again, adding, “Why did you invite him?”

Emmett, like the frog prince, wanted—for having made a bargain—in. Minta heard four rapid little taps. The noise repeated; the volume seemed to increase. She had a vision of Emmett’s having made an audio file of his signature knock.

“I have to answer the door,” Minta whispered. “And I didn’t invite him. Not exactly.”

She heard Emmett’s chuckle. It came over the phone’s speaker. Waving her hands in exasperation, Minta scooted past her mother-in-law.

“Not,” said Emmett, sauntering in, “that you need dine with me, if you’d rather we aren’t seen together.” He sat on the nearest bed. “I can tell you my story here. We might order room service. I suspect it costs something like ten thousand rubles, but why not?”

Mrs. Castelberry had fished her own phone from the inside pocket of her vest. She held it at arm’s length, as though a weapon. She took Emmett’s picture, and glared at him in triumph.

“Well, Valerie, you have a rare souvenir,” he told her. “Few people like risking coming across a photo of me unawares, while having an innocent reminisce over vacation pics.”

“You!” She tossed her phone onto the unoccupied bed. “You dome-headed weirdo…”

He seemed delighted. He smiled with approval.

“…just get out of our room.”

She must throw the weight of her vote, Minta felt, behind the unpopular minority. “Maybe we could order room service…” She moved closer to her mother-in-law. She did not bother to whisper.

“I would like to hear John’s story. He said it was interesting.”

He chuckled once more. “I have prepared a little slide show. However, you no doubt would prefer to begin with…”

“Listen,” Mrs. Castelberry interrupted. “I am a township trustee. I’m not an idiot.”

“Valerie, I have no notion of the job’s requirements. The title is new to me.”

Minta saw her mother-in-law’s eyes crimp. Emmett was a smart-ass, these projected, who thought he was putting one over with his fancy talk.

“My daughter-in-law is happily married.”

Emmett looked directly at Minta. She found herself shrugging, making a comic face.

Valerie said, “Oh, come on!”

“What, please?”

“You’re just playing up to her.”

“Valerie, I am going to agree with you. In the interest of suspending hostilities, I will stop right now. I act in good faith. I beg you merely to bear it in mind that you know what it is you mean by ‘playing up’; whereas, I am ignorant. Therefore, if I offend, I hope you will explain to me in plain terms the nature of the offense.”

Minta had meanwhile been skimming the menu, and the moment for distraction seemed ripe.

“Mom, you can get the chicken you had last night.” Intercepting Emmett’s smirk, she put a finger to her lips, behind Valerie’s back. Playing up, no doubt.

“You order. I’m not hungry.”

“As you’re flying home tomorrow,” Emmett said, “you will want to choose a meal which lingers in your memory. Okroshka and lamb pelmeni, I would suggest. With plenty of hot tea.”

 

4

 


 

“Are you aware…”

Their supper had not yet arrived, but Emmett had turned the lights down in preparation for his slide show. They sat in the dark. He aimed his phone at a patch of wall by the closet. The image was a street scene, a painted door, grey, numbered 55.

“…are you aware of the events of 1960?”

“Kennedy beats Nixon?” Valerie wasn’t really speaking to Emmett. But Minta, seen in the bluish light, had shown a baffled face.

“Well, for that matter, it was the final year of the Eisenhower administration. However, we are in St. Petersburg, and I refer, of course, to one of the great excitements of the cold war era…the American defections to the Soviet Union.”

“I never heard of it,” Minta said.

“You have probably heard of the Gary Powers incident, but that largely fell under the category of embarrassing exposure.” He chuckled. “I suppose the suicide pill is all right in theory. No, my interest is in the Mitchell and Martin affair, and in the curious pas de deux between the Empires.”

He advanced to a black and white news photo. Everyone in the photo, and they were all male, adhered to a naive conformity of dress. Even the eyeglasses were alike.

“Not that this is especially edifying.”

He glanced round. Anticipating his own plans, he smiled; and, in the dim, unnatural light. Emmett seemed to gain authority—the surreal effect, in this case, a complement to his appearance.

“I am writing one of my books,” he told them. “And out of my conscientious attention to detail, I will provide you a bit of background. William Martin and Bernon Mitchell were artisans of encryption under the auspices of the U.S. National Security Agency. Valerie.”

She shot him a baleful eye, and under her breath said, “Oh, for cripes sake!”

“The pas de deux,” he repeated, aiming, with a particularly loaded French accent on the word deux, at her sensitivities. “I will not bore you, Valerie.” He shrugged. “Unless I happen to, of course. A public story is intended to serve a public purpose. The Soviets produced a wonderful bit of stagecraft to showcase their coup in obtaining the services of Mitchell and Martin. Now, what do you think?”

He was quick to follow up his own question.

“Well, what was everyone terrorizing themselves over in the cold war years? You can answer that one, can’t you?” He appealed to Minta. “I like some audience participation.”

He prompted her, then, hovering a finger near the screen. The slide was a sign, one with three yellow-orange triangles, posted outside an institutional portico.

“The bomb,” Minta said. “The nuclear holocaust.”

“Well, atomic. That was the word they liked bandying about in the early days.”

“Someone’s at the door.” Mrs. Castelberry sprang to her feet.

“You must,” Emmett said, rising also from the bed, where a second ago he’d flopped next to Minta, “allow me to cover the tip. You are far too generous, Valerie, in paying for my meal. I am a stranger to you.”

It was true. The room service charge would be added to their bill.

 

“Valerie.” Emmett took up his theme.

Valerie had plunged to its depth the furrow between her eyes, and with this laden stare followed him when he made for the bathroom. While washing away the grease of his meal, Emmett left the door open, though he fussed for some minutes over the drying of his hands. This time, he allowed the room lights to remain on. He approached Mrs. Castelberry’s half, faced the mirror and looked at himself as he spoke. “You hold a position of trust. You live in a community.” She forked willfully at the chicken Minta had ordered for her anyway, and would not look up to see him twice arch his brows. Failing then, to make indirect eye-contact, he swung his attention to Minta.

 

5

 


 

“Uh huh,” she answered. “She does. We do.”

“You live in a neighborhood within a community. You hob-nob among family, friends, co-workers…and neighbors, as one supposes. Many of these people are known to you; many are liked by you. Some, you dislike.

“Let us postulate, for the sake of example, that you dislike a man named Smith. Let us suppose, as well, that a new family has moved into the erstwhile empty house on your street; that you don’t in the least know them. You do not envision yourself making an injurious assault upon Mr. Smith, reasoning that the world is better off without Mr. Smith, on the strength of your disliking Mr. Smith? You do not wish to campaign against this new family; to drive them from their home, on the strength of not knowing them? You do not, as you picture your family, your friends, your co-workers, and your neighbors, imagine them the sort who would, on the pretext of not liking or not knowing a person, launch a criminal attack against him?

“And yet you believe that this quality, this state of mind, can be attributed to someone, that such dangerous people are out there, although you cannot find this quality in yourself or in the people you know and trust. You do not see the world as consisting of people like yourself. You, trustworthy and law-abiding, hopeful for the future, fearful of strangers; they, also trustworthy and law-abiding, also hopeful for the future, and fearful of you, a stranger to them.

“You find the world to be constructed like a pyramid. You and yours sit at the top.”

Valerie let out a breath. “Oh, Jesus! You wanna pretend I’ve done something to these people you’re just now making up? Did I hear you right? I’m minding my own business here!”

Emmett, like many who expound, had—to the extent the room allowed—paced and gestured as he spoke. He’d come to rest against the closet door. She was closer, now, to his phone, than he was. But Valerie was not a practiced plotter…her eye had fixed on its object, and Emmett discerned her intent.

“I am perfectly amenable to negotiation,” he said. “I am speaking to you, Valerie. Rather than do violence to my property, you may ask me to leave.”

“But is that it?”

He smiled kindly on Minta. “I have three points to make. After which, I had meant to answer your question. That is to say, I promise, if Valerie approves, to tell you what I came to St. Petersburg to learn.”

 

“Deviation from the norm,” Emmett said.

He walked street-side, speaking whenever a lull in traffic permitted his voice to be heard. Minta followed her own rhythm, leaning to stare at window displays, straightening to exchange a glance with Emmett while they passed the architectural line of demarcation dividing concrete embrasures from tinted, insulated glass.

Emmett had held up a finger and left her, wordless, zipping down the corridor and popping into the elevator. Minta shrugged, and lingered, for embarrassment’s sake. A woman seeming only to wait in the alcove, ignored the chime and let Emmett board alone. Her eyes stared, focused and not focused, in Minta’s direction; a stare, if the thing were possible, both bored and penetrating.

Minta’s mother-in-law could not accept John Emmett, as a package-deal, but at the last could not persuade herself he was a criminal. Pleading a sinus headache, she’d consigned them to one another. “Do what you want. I can’t stop you.”

Emmett crossed the room to peer down at her. She grimaced and put a hand over her eyes.

“Valerie, you must lie quietly in the dark. I will take Minta away for an hour.”

“Mom, should I get you a washcloth?”

“No! Being left alone, that’s what I need. Both of you leave.”

Minta jerked up her anorak by its hood, and stooped to snag her purse. That her stock at home not lose excess value, she’d tried, “John and I could sit with you, if you’d rather.”

“Oh, shut up!”

 

6

 


Continued from “shut up”

 

All this promised worries to come. It wasn’t Mrs. Castelberry she minded eating crow for. It was Quentin. Already, Minta could hear her mother-in-law’s voice through the door.

The chime sounded again. Emmett emerged in a duffle coat, and extracted from its pocket a black knit cap. Wearing these, he receded into ordinariness. She must revise her earlier opinion. Emmett was capable, after all, of trailing a target in the background, unnoticed.

Why was she saying target?

“I almost gave up on you,” she told him. Still offending, he’d held off his answer until she walked out with him, choosing her own from the lobby’s array of glass doors, since he would not hold one open.

“It is the almosts we live for.”

John Emmett, Minta told herself, was poorly socialized. But she’d allowed him success with these mannerisms, so why complain? She was glad of her freedom. She was going out. She hadn’t done this for years.

On this thoroughfare, they were camouflaged further by the play of light from headlamps, a stream of these shifting beams across the static rectangular fall of amber from windows, circles from lampposts, and the scattershot red and blue of LED displays. Minta felt like a contented non-entity, cocooned in the crowd, moving against its current. She breathed away the malaise of recirculated hotel air.

“Deviation from the norm. Picture,” Emmett said, “Nevsky Prospect as it might have been in the late 1950s, on the brink of a new decade. Europe was young…a continent reborn in a way, after the slaughter of a generation. Even, perhaps especially, the Soviet Union was young. I will not complicate the experiment by altering the hour or the season.

“Winter, therefore, is drawing on, and darkness, on this particular evening, has fallen. You are, of course, in Leningrad, and Nevsky Prospect is your Oxford street. You feel excited here, as do all who approach the city’s neon heart from its grey suburbs. You are yourself young.”

“Well,” Minta, surprised, said. “Not so much. But thank you.”

“Uh.” They were stalled by the queue at a backlit map of the city’s Heritage zone, and Emmett, looking down at Minta, evaluated her face. “I find myself embarrassed.” He did not sound embarrassed. “I don’t actually refer to you. Rather pointlessly, I had asked you to view my narrative through the eyes of a fictional witness to these events.”

“Does”—Minta tabled this for the time being—”Leningrad really have a heart of neon?”

“Leningrad is, in fact, modestly cosmopolitan. You may shop here, you may attend the theater. You live in a gateway city; inevitably, you enjoy a certain traffic with the free states of Europe. Now, let me ask you. You are an American…”

“A minute ago, you said I was young…and then you took it back. Are we talking about me, or some made-up character?”

He sighed. “When you refuse to enter into the spirit of the thing, you shatter my little imaginary glass dome. Shall we suppose I refer to you? You are an American, and we will suppose moreover that you grew up in a small town…”

“I did.”

“Your options may have been limited.”

“I didn’t have options.”

“That, in a way, is the point. Governments rarely manage deprivation in such a fashion as to render it superior deprivation. Whether your life had been spent on an American Indian reservation, in a Basque village, a suburb of Belfast, or a kommunalka…there existed, during the Cold War era, certain leveling global influences. And, here we see the Cold War idea superimposed on an ordinary social process, one that is inherent in human nature. Suppose that you had been born in 1950…”

“Oh, come on,” Minta said.

“You, Minta Castelberry, were born in 1976. But I don’t mean you. And by the way…” A small, lozenge-shaped white car, rusty about the underpinnings, pulled to the curb. It maintained a modest angle, and avoided committing itself to any legal zone.

“There are some of your friends,” Emmett remarked.

Dr. Slater backed from the taxi. He hovered his hand above the shoulder of a red-haired woman, and attentive to his companion, bustled her to the sidewalk, while his assistant, unaided, struggled from the cab. Out (at last) shot Cammie like a cork coming unstuck, along with an armload of knapsack, video camera case, a man’s overcoat, and a shopping bag. She carried, also, a bouquet of flowers wrapped in plastic. This, she dropped. She alone, for darting over her shoulder the sort of glance embarrassed people dart over shoulders, happened to notice Minta and Emmett, as they stood watching. She jerked her face away, with such an obvious reddening, that Minta in turn, felt embarrassed.

 

7

 


 

“If I look you up,” she asked Emmett, “what would I find out?”

“You might try the experiment now, if you are really interested.”

Minta thought she ought to. It hadn’t occurred to her to use her phone. But no, she realized…she would probably find out nothing, or he wouldn’t be so confident.

“You said, ‘by the way’.”

“I was going to mention, if it would please you, that you appear somewhat younger than your age.”

This austere compliment was, Minta thought, at least offered sincerely. He’d held his mistake at the back of his mind.

“Have you made your three points yet?” she asked.

“No, not even the first. You keep jumping about from topic to topic. Let me see… You were born in 1950, or, it might equally have been 1960. Not you, of course.”

“The woman who lives in the dome.” Enjoying the waywardness of the conversation, Minta added a declamatory fling of the hand; and, for an instant, found herself locking eyes with a young man, either performing as he walked along, or rapping to music piped into his ear. Without missing a beat, he continued to do so.

“What did you dream of becoming when you were twenty years old?” Emmett asked.

“Oh, goodness!” She was caught off guard. She felt herself blushing, karmic payback for staring at Cammie. She looked at Emmett, and decided he must have grown to like her. A corner of his mouth curved, but―almost in a caring way―he turned his face from her.

“Well, I used to sing. I thought I was going to be…”

“A rock star, something to that effect.”

“Okay, but doesn’t everyone?”

“Again, my point. Not, however, one of the three points. We haven’t got there yet. You are twenty years old and you dream of becoming a rock star. Your ethnicity, your religion, your economic position, your country of origin—those things are immaterial. Anywhere on earth, you may live on the hope of the unattainable at an age when all things seem possible.”

“So I―the character―was born in 1950?”

“You find,” Emmett touched Minta lightly on the arm, signaling her to look, rather than listen, “that the city envelops you? As though you were a child exploring the family lumber room, among so many painted vanities and stuffed heads?”

She shrugged, conjuring his imagery in her mind. He meant something by it, after all. Emmett continued: “We will have a look at the river Neva. It possesses something of the Waterloo Bridge phenomenon. A certain nighttime allure as the light’s reflections bob along with the wavelets. But let’s assume that it is 1990. You are nearly forty, we will say, and you no longer dream.”

“I can dream a little, can’t I?”

“You may dream of stability. You and others of your generation. Your expectations have matured. Your generation’s influence on your nation’s politics and culture will be a mirror of your own experience.”

Minta and her mother-in-law had bought a discount tour package. The river, at this season, was neither bathed in romantic light, nor encased in ice. Its steady current pulsed silver, like many voices whispering a word in confidence, then vanishing. Emmett’s cryptic thoughts called to Minta’s mind his first remark.

 

8

 


Continued from “first remark”

 

“When we started walking, you said, ‘deviation from the norm’.”

“My three points. I told you earlier, that a public story is created to serve a public purpose. Equally so, if you have, unknown to your opponents, acquired information privately, and you find the information useful; you will keep the information, and your plans for its use, private. In 1960, as I had mentioned, two American encryptionists…encryptioneurs?…defected to the Soviet Union. The Soviets did not conceal this, by any of the many means by which they might have―compare the rocket accident at Baikonur of the same year―rather, they held a press conference to announce their triumph.

“The Americans responded by calling Martin and Mitchell deviates; by claiming the defectors knew little of value; and, by saying that it was nearly impossible to avoid the accidental hiring of such people, given the deficiencies of the screening process.

“My second point is a minor one; but, it segues into the third point, which is really the gist: if your business is fear, then your factory needs certain raw materials in order to produce a regular supply.

“Now, the Fear Story is an odd position, when you consider it. It isn’t necessary. It doesn’t serve a public purpose. You may say that governments can’t do miracles. They cannot protect people against all threats―not even those which allegedly lurk within the walls of their own agencies. But much is encompassed under the umbrella of ‘awareness’. Returning to the public position: if I, for the sake of argument, have a thirteen percent chance of some danger; I have, as well, an eighty-seven percent chance of safety. The Fear Story is a fiction. It needn’t be told in a particular way, so long as the punchline survives. I will digress for a moment.”

Minta raised an eyebrow; she tilted her head and looked up at Emmett, but before she could fully engage an expression of mock-astonishment, her phone provided its own digression. An elfin, gender-free voice emerged from her handbag to warble a single line, “Baby, it’s been a long time…” The music ceased.

“There’s Oswald,” Emmett said.

“I’m sure there was no ‘90’s band called ‘Oswald’. Give me a minute; I’ll think of it.”

“I meant to say…what’s-his-name…texting you at your Euro-number. I’m fond of Stockhausen, but I took the liberty of altering Oswald’s handiwork to something succinct. Five seconds is all that ought to be permitted, per ringtone.”

“My husband’s name is Quentin.”

“Oh…yes…I think you’re right. Well, a ‘q’ majuscule looks much like a ‘o’. This is the way the world ends, Minta. Filed under the wrong letter.”

She fished out her phone. The message was: Where are you? Using lowercase, dispensing with punctuation, because she was not adept at texting while walking, Minta answered, “im fine”. She knew it offended Quentin’s eyes. She dropped the phone back into her bag. His question did not have a simple answer, and she didn’t want to return his call. Quentin had been talking to his mother.

After studying with interest Minta’s irritation, Emmett said, “What do you consider a weapon of terror?”

She thought she should not be drawn into such a discussion on a public street. She sought an approach to Emmett’s personal side. “You seem to know Dr. Slater…”

He chuckled. “You are changing the subject. You fear that the moment is at hand, and I am about to reveal to you some indecent proposal. No. My third point, Minta… There is an epigram, which you may have run across, attributed anecdotally to various celebrated inquisitors…Conrad of Marburg is my favorite…the one in which some iron-fisted type proposes killing everyone, and assigning to God the task of recognizing his own.

“This maligned god may find, as he shakes out his tuna net, that he has snagged an assortment of creatures, including the occasional dolphin. My point. If I frighten you, I mean to disturb you and disrupt the normal conduct of your business. If I have discovered a thing that reliably frightens you, and I have a persistent reason to disturb and disrupt you, I will deploy my weapon. Persistently and ruthlessly. Because you allow me to.

“How might you neutralize my weapon of terror? I have asked you to consider a construct: fear as product, generated from the raw material of propaganda. The fear factory generates its product because it is an entity. An entity tends to self-perpetuate. Why so? Because it would otherwise self-destruct. Have we seen an agency which asks to be defunded; to have its authority curtailed, its staff reduced? Superimposed upon a forty-year epoch in which ordinary post-war recovery must steadfastly have followed a course of maturity―it could not have avoided doing so―we saw a rickety scaffolding of enmity. Whom did the Cold War benefit?

“Superimposed, I repeat, upon every modern-day hostile action, we see disproportionate and anti-social—in the truest sense of the term—scare-mongering. An incident requires investigation, containment, and mitigation. You cannot enhance the nature of any of those things, or expedite their carrying-out, by placing them in a heightened environment of fear. Fearfulness is antithetical to the cautious state of mind which justice demands.

“The position is a lie. Hysteria is not a public service. The job of recovery will have to be done in any case, and would be done more competently and more fairly, absent the fraught politisphere. And whom does this scare-mongering benefit?”

“But why…” Minta had a question of her own. And, as she supposed, Emmett might have talked around his subject, because he never meant to fully explain it. She tried again. “All this Cold War background…and then, if I understand you…” she stopped.

“I have made myself obscure to you.”

“No, I see what you mean…” She drew out the word “mean”, as she sorted her thoughts. “If I were young…well, when I was young and poor, I was in the same boat as everyone―everyone else in the world who was young and poor, that is.”

“You were malleable. But you were not political. Not to say,” Emmett added, “that your mind might not have been excited by ideas. You may have joined a street protest, or circulated a petition. But politics, true politics, are conducted at the level of, for example―the township trustee.

“There are, Minta, literal raw materials, which must be obtained, and there are nations that control them. Those nations are not always friendly trading partners with the nations that have need of those materials. There are shared borders. You cannot always fulminate at the podium; on occasion, you may encounter your neighbor at the mountain pass. What I am telling you, Minta, is that, for a time, the phenomenon of defector was highly publicized. The Defector became a public character; the device created a nice cover under the shadow of which shadow defectors were able to do their work. I mean, of course, double-agents. The hazard in working under cover is that, when you become dispensable, you have no recourse. Stop here for a moment.”

 

9

 


 

They’d woven across a broad, intersecting street, and begun retracing their steps. Emmett pinched Minta’s sleeve at the elbow. He stepped up into an entryway; following, she saw a white sign, cheerfully lit, its lettering blue, and to her eyes unreadable. The sign was framed in the window beside the door’s closed blind.

“What have I come here to find out?” Emmett asked. “Will you let me show you something?”

“We’re friends, now,” she began. “You know, I think we really are. So you understand…my mother-in-law…I can’t just…”

“Seriously,” he said. “Please let me have your phone.”

“Are you going to take the voodoo off?” Again, she rummaged in her bag.

He tapped and scrolled, this time with a face that struck Minta purposeful, angry possibly—not smug. He held the screen before her eyes. The image was an angled view. She saw a steering wheel…her own car. She knew this, because the sun-catcher, swinging from the rear-view mirror, was hers. And the light, shining through the spotted skin of a tree frog, casting irregular scintillations of blue and green, fell across her own head, as her face loomed in, ballooning over the lens. She cringed. She was talking to herself. Her phone had been filming her from the passenger seat.

“Quentin, don’t lie to me,” Minta’s voice was saying. She heard this rattle on, hoarse, adenoidal, spitting out a little diatribe. It was not the first time Quentin had taken the garage door opener from her car.

She felt odd.

She felt mortified, of course…and felt undercurrents, also, of a kind of panic, tiny needles pricking her skin.

“I don’t get it. I must,” she added, “have hit the wrong button…” She said this, but it came out a question.

“You might have hit the wrong button.”

Emmett tapped, the phone deedled, and the screen went dark. He dropped it in her bag. “You might have got into a habit of doing that. And never realized it. Your husband might have organized these clips and put them into a passworded folder because he thought you wanted them. He might tell you so, if you asked.”

“Is it supposed to be a joke?”

“As an outsider, I am not in a position to say. But consider: does an individual who practices, in secret, to observe ordinary human behavior, find such behavior inherently humorous…or, does this type of person need to share his secret, in order to find it gratifying?”

“I don’t want to consider that.”

“My father,” Emmett said, “was assigned throughout the sixties to an embassy post in Helsinki. He’d been rather an elderly bachelor at the time he softened on the wedlock scenario. You and I, Minta, are rough contemporaries. My mother was a native of Leningrad, a journalist by profession. She had fled the Soviet Union with her mother, in 1952, and settled in London. They―my parents―had presumably never known one another, but met for the first time, when my father took up journalism on his own account.

“He was hired by the Times to visit Leningrad―this was in 1971―and to write a series on contemporary Soviet life. He was a fluent speaker of Russian. He, of course, had many contacts in the region. I mention it, because on this pretext of his needing to prepare for the assignment, he began fraternizing openly among the Russian expat community in London.

“I suppose…” Emmett studied Minta. Now, when he seemed finally saying it…the promised thing, thoughts of Quentin intruded at the periphery. Still, she was alert to Emmett’s words.

“…if you had ever been aware of my pathetic debut as a public figure, you have forgotten. The scandal took place in 1980. My father, the elder John Emmett, had been caught spying. He was welcomed to a place of refuge, where he had so often run his little errands. Leningrad…now St. Petersburg…is, of course, the city to which I refer. My mother had offed herself, a year earlier. I didn’t know my parents, so you mustn’t feel bad for me.”

 

10

 


Continued from “bad for me”

 

Minta saw a picture of herself in high school, slumped at a desk in bored misery. A television, set up on a cart, played a video. But the cart had been placed near a window; the school year was nearly over. The teacher himself, knowing his audience, glossed past these latter events of world history. Maybe, like Minta, he’d been staring at the world on the other side of the window…thinking of freedom, and his summer job.

But, remembering this, she recalled also, that she had once heard the name John Emmett.

“Well,” the namesake of the disgraced British ex-diplomat observed, “shall I walk you back to our hotel? Although, truthfully, you are capable of finding your way. We could say goodbye here.”

He spoke in the withdrawn manner of the affronted. Minta did feel bad now. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry, I was daydreaming for a minute…” She was struck, suddenly, by an understanding. He had told her his mother committed suicide. And mentioned it in such an off-hand way…

“Goodness,” Minta said.

“Goodness, what?”

“Is your father still alive?”

“My father was born in 1921. He was well up in his fifties when I came along. It wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility, I suppose. However, I have been informed that my father has been dead for many years. I had meant to natter on a bit with my story, but it seems to have a stultifying effect on you.”

In the interest of mending fences, Minta tried to show some intelligence. “Your father was living here, as an exile?” Exile might not be the word. “And so, you wanted to find out…”

“I found out nothing. The first time I came to St. Petersburg. That was ten years ago. I will admit to you, since you raise the point, that at the time I had some hope of discovering him alive. If in childhood you had ever been prodded forward to say hello to some elderly person who has no idea of who you are, you can readily visualize the joyful occasion, as it might have unfolded. Only, being that I was well into adulthood, and of a generally disappointing aspect, so much the more awkward and painful. But it was not to be. I thrust my father’s photo into dozens of faces, but I met no one who claimed to have known him.

“Shall we walk?” He touched her lightly on the shoulder. “I feel that we will be asked to move along, if we continue to loiter here.”

And again, everyone else seemed crushing together in the opposite direction. Minta and Emmett pushed against the flow.

“I was naïve,” he said. “The experience was embarrassing. But, you should not suppose I hadn’t thought of making ordinary inquiries. I found my father’s old editor, a man named Torbay. Torbay, being of a younger generation, continued sprightly, and he evinced”—here Emmett dodged towards Minta a significant look, then straightened—“great interest in my quest. He had himself, had Torbay, longed to solve this mystery. Hoping to write a book about the Emmett affair. Could use someone to help him in his research.

“As you might guess…or perhaps not, but as, in any case, I am about to tell you…Torbay had collected a box of photos and documents, all exciting and suggestive. I wanted to help, you understand. I felt it was my right to tell my father’s story, if anyone were to tell it. I thought I’d done a clever job, unearthing Torbay. And at Torbay’s behest, I might spend a hopeful day on the phone, seeking news of the Finnish minister my father had befriended in 1962, listening to the audio deteriorate into gibberish. Or, I might be dispatched to such a place as Shoeburyness, to interview one of my father’s expat cronies at his last known address.”

“And the people there told you they’d never heard of him?” Minta hazarded.

“When I was lucky, it ended that quickly. Torbay was a sort of gatekeeper. All roads led to Torbay, when it came to my father’s case, and there were few ways past him. I was not, after all, so clever; had I known better, I would have done well to avoid Torbay’s web of influence.

 

11

 


 

“I quit visiting him. I decided I would return to St. Petersburg. But I would apply some actual methodology to my investigation. Who was my father? What did I know about him? To reach the people who might be able to tell me something, I needed to become my father, in a manner of speaking…see the city through his eyes, figure out where his haunts might have been.

“People do like to tell what they know, really. I make myself familiar by showing up, time and again. The center may be shrouded in mystery, but further towards the periphery, are all the bits of information they are not so touchy about. I learn a thing, and I use it to take a step closer. They allow me to, because I appear to have ‘got in’ to a degree, already. You see what I mean, Minta.”

“It’s dangerous, isn’t it?”

She saw what he meant, but the tactic he described called for feigning knowledge, and using such a ruse to approach those with real knowledge. Emmett either misunderstood the thrust of her question, or chose to view it from another angle. “I can’t promise,” he said, “that I am not a danger to anyone’s secret. There is such a thing as public accountability. And I don’t myself know what I may discover.”

“No…”

She gave him this prompt, at his silence, and he went on. “On my fourth visit to St. Petersburg, I made a friend. Or, it may be, some guiding hand was at work―someone felt it was time for me to be led astray. At any rate, however cynical one becomes, all thrilling breakthroughs must be followed up. I will call my friend Ilya, because it is what he calls himself.”

“But you told me your father was dead. Or,” Minta remembered “you said you’d been informed. Was Ilya the one?”

Emmett snorted. “What have I taught you? Ilya had not known my father. But he had lived in the house my father once occupied. He was cagey about his sources, but offered to show me proof. And so he did. My first actual connection, the ghost arisen―it was, in fact, a little eerie. Ilya brought me a snapshot, and I saw my father. Standing next to him, his friend, the Finnish minister. Flowing placidly in the background, the river Neva. Incidentally, the Finnish minister had disgraced himself in his own right, in 1979, while publicly cavorting with Helsinki’s fascists.”

 

The Baltic Hotel was offset from the street by a sort of plaza, flanked on one side by a wheelchair ramp. The outer wall of an unrelated bank completed the space. Emmett stopped here, and gazed down at the minimalist burnished box enclosing the hotel’s fountain. An inch or two of water shivered over pebbles lining this, and withdrawing a hand from his coat pocket, Emmett tossed coins, one after another, with a meditative deliberation. When he had cast away the fourth, and last, he said to Minta, “I received an email from Ilya, after I had returned home. Along with a lot of rubbish which I might charitably consider to have been well-intended. I have always understood,” he added, “that a person of my sort is vulnerable. There is no reason…”

After a pause, Emmett began again, quietly, “There is no reason why my friendships are more interesting than anyone else’s. Never mind…Ilya’s story would have forced me back to square one. And I can’t do it.

“My father, according to Ilya, was being treated for cancer―I don’t know what variety―at a research center in Moscow, and I might learn more…if after ten years, I wouldn’t mind going to Moscow and starting it all again. It’s not, Minta, that I am incapable of rallying. Russian medical records aren’t easy things to research. But I’ve tried. I made a list for myself; I have phoned and emailed with due diligence. And Torbay turned up once more.”

“Why,” she asked, “if Torbay knew everything, would he not have known how your father died? Or did he not tell you everything he knew?”

“Now, be serious. You ought to have guessed Torbay hasn’t told me a fraction of what he knows. Minta, he offered to buy me lunch…and given his air of portent, I had to accept. While doing a fairly decent job suppressing his amusement, he told me I’d wasted the past year, bothering over Ilya’s story. My father, he said, was a suicide. Letting me know. Chicken belatedly come home to roost…

“Torbay has his sources. He is, after all, one of the farmyard’s proprietors. No, my father’s story had ended well before my first search began, when he’d pitched himself into the waters of the Neva―from the Alexander Nevsky Bridge. You see, it had all been an ugly, mean-spirited joke. And there Torbay sat, holding his spoon, dripping miso soup on his tie, expecting me to believe him. I haven’t found Ilya this trip, you see. That I would try, I think, was Torbay’s test for me.”

 

12

 


 

“I don’t want to say the wrong thing…” Minta was cautious. Emmett, having checked his emotion earlier, had spoken this time with real anger.

“…but I don’t understand. I mean, it’s awful, but what makes it a joke?” She let her voice trail into meekness. She found Torbay unlikeable, as Emmett characterized him, and could imagine he had behaved offensively—

“You haven’t understood my Waterloo Bridge reference.”

“Oh.”

She did understand, now he’d recalled it to her.

“But then,” Minta said, “people sometimes do…I mean…obsess over…” And seeing error in the direction she was heading, gave up. She was about to say goodbye to Emmett. She would hate to leave him with a stupid, insensitive comment.

“People,” Emmett said, “driven to the extremity of despair, sometimes do, nonetheless, take the trouble to plan a grand gesture, an homage, one might call it…” He shrugged. “They do, occasionally. And no doubt, a bridge is convenient. There seems always to be one nearby. But I don’t believe it. Intuitively, I don’t believe it. You may be right to call me obsessed, however.”

“Oh, now, I never did. But…what do you really need to know, John? I think,” Minta said, testing this, “you’ve had an unhappy life, and you’re looking for something that explains it.”

“The secret diary? True, my father cracked under pressure of family responsibility. His career in treason had gone along serenely enough, until the late ‘70s. It was this groping after conventionality that inspired him to inflict unnecessary harm. I can say to you, Minta, without undue self-depreciation, there is no reason I ought to be here.” He gave her a steadying look. “I don’t find it out of the question that he might have left behind personal papers. Discovering them―if they exist―may not give me peace of mind. Mrs. Castelberry…”

He touched his cap, having surprised her with this address, and took a step towards the street, a leave-taking preliminary.

And, if he were not coming in, he must have some errand that remained. She wanted to say, “I’ll come with you.”

“…I’ve chosen badly. Miss Graham did not in the least understand me.”

“Miss… Oh, Cammie?”

“I am not paranoid,” he told her, “but I am aware of being watched. You will realize it can’t be otherwise. The British government would have been happy to intercept my father, had he ever attempted to re-enter England. He might have tried to contact me. I was…in a manner of speaking…his closest relative.”

“But he never did.”

“I don’t believe so, no. I have always thought, however, that it would be wise to have a friend. I’m not very good at making friends, I’m afraid. I had a poor start in life.”

“If you need someone…”

She raised her voice. He had taken another step away from her. “Someone to help you in your work. That way, with a friend…to pick up the slack…you might have an easier time—”

“I’m done with it, actually. I have paid my last visit to St. Petersburg. But, Minta, I’ve added myself to your contact list. You may call me if you like.”

 

Minta stared at Quentin’s tuft of a pony-tail. It caught against his shirt collar, tucking itself in, wagging loose, while he hunched over his table. He had called her to his study; he was now keeping her waiting. She knew the routine.

“I’m having a bagel. Do you want one?”

She’d just said it, and Quentin’s move was to dither over the question of deviled ham or peanut butter. Because she wouldn’t stoop to playing it, she was hostage to this game. She still fixed him snacks, picked up his sneakers, let him choose their TV shows.

“You decide,” he told her, after a long minute of drumming a rhythm with his pen; making a sucking noise in his cheek.

She was in the kitchen, spreading peanut butter, when he called out.

 

13

 


Continued from “called out”

 

“Hey, Minta!”

“What?”

“Deviled ham.”

And just as the toaster popped, with a surplus of bagels that would have to be lunch, Quentin called her a second time. These days, thanks to John Emmett, she felt acutely aware of these dynamics, that aggravated every minor power struggle of her marriage. She brought Quentin’s plate, put it on the file cabinet with a small emphatic clink, and wondered, leaning across his absorbed back, how strongly might his hairstyle resemble his mother’s, if that pony-tail were snipped off with a pair of scissors?

Quentin’s tablet was suspended on a sheet of silicone; his drafting table’s pitch showed Minta the screen, but as always, he’d concealed his private files—never had she seen anything of these—behind his little utility. The screen shimmered, as though it were a graphite-hued, placidly blank reflecting pool. And every ambient noise in the room caused a ripple to wave outwards, a drop of water seeming to have plunked there.

Quentin glanced over his shoulder, then spoke to his tablet, able still to be fascinated by this phenomenon of his own creation. His watery blue eyes were childlike.

“Minta,” he said, “let me tell you about the Snocrowave.”

When with her husband, and seeing every word mocked by the quivering thing on the table between them, Minta always felt as though a third person were in the room. A rude little person. For having learned something, she now wondered if Quentin recorded their talks, if his partner Art were listening in, even…if they would chortle together, when she’d left the room.

“The Snocrowave,” she said, “is that what you’ve been working on?”

“Snow,” said Quentin. He swiveled on his stool, and slapped hands against his knees. “Think about the nature of snow. It’s funny, isn’t it? We might have a storm that dumps ten inches, and we’re like, we have to get rid of it. We stockpile salt, we maintain fleets of machinery. Traffic is disrupted, businesses and schools close, roofs collapse. People die in accidents. You have power failures. Then, you might have more deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning. And yet, consider, Minta, that snow is ephemeral. You get a March snowstorm and within two days, the temperature goes up forty degrees. The snow disappears.

“Snow as a municipal problem, as a regional problem, makes no sense. The amount of money spent, the damage done, the loss of revenue…what public hazard is managed as inefficiently as snow?”

Minta would have guessed this a rhetorical question. But Quentin looked expectant, so she said, “You’re right. It’s too bad we don’t all work at home.”

Getting, and needing, nothing from her comment, he went on, “Military technology adapted for the public good. The Snocrowave would be a drone-mounted pulsed high-frequency beam…harmless to structures, and to, well…non-structures…”

“People?” she asked.

“In ordinary circumstances, we would see very little interaction between the Snocrowave and incidental humans.” He made a fog-clearing push with his hand. She hadn’t been going to say any more.

“But of course the Snocrowave technology is safe. The point is, these drones would be deployed on an as needed basis. And the snow would all be vaporized. You would have no ice residue to create a secondary hazard. Streets, sidewalks, roofs of public and private structures, power lines, cleared in a matter of seconds…and floods! Think of shearing away layers of snowpack, so that when the spring thaw arrives, you have none of the  seasonal flooding of the past. Millions of dollars saved!”

“It’s biblical.”

He nodded, as though she’d got it, and said without irony, “Any great idea is biblical.”

 

14

 


clip art from microsoft word 2010

 

“Does it need to be called the Snocrowave?”

“I don’t see why it wouldn’t.” Bored with their talk, he swiveled away from her. He was hunching again, secretive, fiddling idly with his tablet, and Minta felt she could safely back through the doorway.

“People get used to things…Minta,” he added suddenly. She halted, and crossed her arms.

“Did someone steal your phone…and you were afraid to tell me?”

She raised her eyebrows.

“No. I would tell you anything, Quentin.”

 

If he hadn’t wanted her to contact him, it would have been sense not to suggest it…he seemed impossible to get back to. She sat cross-legged on the bed, switched on the TV, and muted the sound. She propped her laptop on her knees. She noted, among her new messages, nothing from John. Minta had been worried over his state of mind.

He had no social accounts, and…was indeed author of two art history books. These seemed to make people angry. Both the Guardian’s and the Telegraph’s reviewers had fronted his name with: “the reclusive”. Neither mentioned his father.

Following three irritating dropped connections, she’d got his number to ring. He hadn’t answered. He didn’t have voice mail. He had an inbox; the address was on the card he’d given her. On arriving home, Minta had sent a brief message.

How are you doing? I just got back.

Emailing John’s publisher struck her as stalker-ish, embarrassing for him…a breach of trust if he had really confided in her. And he might only have had second thoughts.

She sighed, and hoped Quentin didn’t consider the Snocrowave off-limits for discussion. He hadn’t said so. Emmett, Minta thought, was taking on the role of invisible friend. She saw a therapeutic benefit, talking out her frustrations in this one-sided way.

Her husband’s charm—and why suppose it couldn’t be charm?—was in his energy. He had fits of this. He was vocal. His first words to her had been, surprisingly, over her shoulder, “You probably think you want that, but you don’t.”

 She’d got the name of the EP like a spy…rubbing the side of a pencil over a post-it pad. She didn’t know what collectors of vinyl wanted, what they dismissed.

“No,” the stranger had a grin in his voice, “a lot of people always think live is raw, so it’s got to be the best. This…”

He nudged her arm with the edge of it.

“…is the only one they got, grab it! Yeah, it was actually the last time Ian sat in on a studio session, before he o.d’d.” Quentin had given her a look, widened his eyes…you know what I mean.  She’d laughed, and he’d said, “It’s not funny.”

“Are you Matt’s brother?” she’d asked him. Her boyfriend was going to say, of either choice, “Oh, great. It’s not what I wanted…but great.”

They weren’t brothers. They were friends, though. The-not-very-coincidental coincidence had got her talking to Quentin.

And though until Emmett, she’d had no catalyst to accelerate her rebellion, she’d known her husband was a bully. She’d known it, because he accused her, before she’d opened her mouth, of practicing passive aggression; and because he took real enjoyment in seeing people lose. But he could be both those things—a charming asshole—and nonetheless legally entitled to film what he liked in his own house. Minta feared she had no recourse. Unless she left him; unless Quentin were creepy enough to follow her, so to speak, with his gadgetry.

She hit ‘Send’, and a thought occurred to her. She could look up Torbay. She typed his name into her search bar, and was answered with a long list of localities―finally, on the third page, she found a bio blurb: Douglas S. Torbay, ( b. 1943 ) journalist and newspaper editor, author; officer, British army

He was in his seventies. The work he’d written was not the planned Emmett opus, but a three-volume study dealing…as Minta had to assume, exhaustively…with the history and politics of the Dardanelles region, through the first half of the twentieth century. She clicked the link. It would be nice for Torbay, she thought, to get a click. And she was curious to know what the authorial voice of Torbay sounded like.

 

15

 


 

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