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By Naomi Bulger
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Naomi Bulger
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe old man opened the stranger's letter and started to read. You couldn't tell just by looking whether the tension around his eyes was anticipation or just irritation. His hand shook as he unfolded the page, but that could as easily have been age as excitement.
A U.S. penny, dated 1982, fell out, as did a cup-stained, unbranded paper napkin with the words "the coffee is terrible" written across it in blue ink. The ink ran at the edges. There was always some kind of memento like this. The stranger had, as usual, seemed to scribble on any paper that came to hand. This time it was the disemboweled airmail envelope itself, written on inside and out.
"Dear Mr. G. L. Solomon," it began. That was the old man's name.
I am being followed. How silly to be afraid of a fat-bottomed woman in a pink, velour tracksuit. She's everywhere I go—never behind me, always in front. But I do mean always in front. The first time I saw her was outside a downtown bar called La Esquina. That's a Latin-style place that used to be cool, and I read about it in Harper's before I came. Supposedly, men would dance with you and buy you cocktails, but in reality, it's too crowded to breathe properly, let alone dance, and all we do is sweat and buy our own damned expensive drinks. Oh, and there's a law against dancing in this town. Seriously! Can you believe it? New York is insane. Anyway, I went outside for a little break, and there was a chubby black lady in a pink tracksuit having a cigarette. I noticed her because tracksuits aren't exactly standard La Esquina gear. We shared one of those half smiles—you know—when you don't know somebody but there's something there and you keep eye contact longer than usual? I went back inside, and later I saw her dancing crazily (and illegally) in the back of the bar. So it's two days later, and I'm at Magnolia, which is this place in the Village where you can get a hundred different types of cupcakes. The lady is already lining up for her cupcake and tea, and I recognize her straight away. She's even wearing the same pink tracksuit. On Sunday afternoon, I'm catching the subway with two friends, and we're heading up to see the Yankees play the Tampa Devil Rays from the eleven-dollar seats out in the bleachers. I notice her as we go to board the train, just in front of us, and we end up sitting three seats down from her. She's wearing a Yankees cap, just as we all are. And she's still wearing the pink tracksuit! I don't look sideways, so I don't catch her eye, but I know she's watching me. It's starting to freak me out. We lose her at the stadium, but I know she is there somewhere, probably in the bleachers. Back home in SoHo, I see her pink tracksuit backside in the weekend shopping crowd just a little ahead of me. Twice. I am definitely being followed. And I have my suspicions, but I don't really know why. Yours, Anouk
The old man frowned momentarily. Then he drained the last of the whiskey, warm now, which sat on the small table beside his armchair. He carefully folded the envelope back up, pulled a shoebox from under the green fabric trimming on the armchair, and placed the letter, the penny, and the napkin inside it. Already in the box was a small pile of letters in the same handwriting.
From a faded, hand-tinted portrait in a cheap, gilt frame that hung slightly askew on the wallpaper, a prettyish young woman in old-fashioned clothes watched the old man. She watched him as he eased himself out of the chair and walked slowly into the kitchen, flipped the kettle on, put a tea bag in a china teacup without bothering with the saucer, and lit a cigarette while he waited for the kettle to boil. The old man did not so much as glance in the direction of the portrait.
It was 10:00 am on a Tuesday.
* * *
The old man finished the cigarette, was down to the last sip of his cup of tea, and thought about heading into town to purchase his regular groceries. On the other side of the world, Anouk and a small group of new friends got up to leave Café Lalo on the Upper West Side on Manhattan, New York. Her stomach was full of berries, her mouth tasted of sugar, and it had grown dark outside while she ate. Someone had just told a joke, and they all laughed as they stepped out of the café. Anouk later discovered a piece of blackberry caught front and center in her teeth that nobody told her about.
Just ahead, waddling out of the same café and down the steps and into the twilight, she caught a glimpse of pink. Velour tracksuit. She knew it! Anouk grabbed the arm of the friend nearest to her, Sarah, and pointed with the other hand. She asked, "Do you see that woman over there? The stalker! She's here!" Sarah looked around, swiveling her head in completely the wrong direction. "Other way! The other way! Do you see her?" But the woman had disappeared into the crowd.
It was so frustrating. It always seemed to happen that way. Everybody missed the woman except Anouk.
And as the group formed questions, Anouk felt the familiar isolation begin to settle heavily among the berries.
Who could blame them for not understanding? Who would be afraid of a fat backside, phantom or flesh, in a tacky velour tracksuit? The woman hardly had the physique of a paid assassin. And to an impartial observer, it would appear that Anouk was doing the stalking, not the other way around. Yet the situation felt sinister, and Anouk felt alone. Pink Tracksuit didn't look back as she disappeared into the early evening of the tree-lined street among the café goers and the children playing marbles by porch light on the smooth steps of the classic brownstones. But Anouk could feel her eyes.
An hour later, alone in her tiny boardinghouse room, Anouk began to pace. Inside her head, she retraced her steps since landing at JFK International in the muggy late July—the people she had met, her regular haunts. Scouring her memory for a glimpse of anyone who may somehow be connected to the eccentric spy. She searched for the point at which her path first crossed with the Pink Tracksuit's, or for the moment when the daily exercise of her new identity may have unintentionally left open a window to her old life.
A sudden thought occurred to Anouk, and she rushed to the top drawer in the dresser by the bed. With relief, she saw that her passport, the only document in the room containing her real name, appeared undisturbed. She pulled it out, flipped through it, put it back, and closed the drawer. Then, remembering a childhood episode of The Famous Five, she found some talcum powder in the bathroom cabinet. Very lightly, almost imperceptibly, she dusted the passport with the powder so that it would reveal future fingerprints. For a moment, she felt clever and smug.
Then she thought about her old life again, a life that was now inseparable from memories of him. Abruptly, Anouk sat down on the edge of the bed and started to cry.
Chapter TwoIn the Sydney and Greater Metropolitan White Pages, he was listed as Mr. G. L. Solomon, 02 9218 5068. But nobody called the number. G. L. stood for G—— L——.
His favorite things were as follows: single-malt whiskey, Steve McQueen movies, and gingersnap cookies.
His pet hates were as follows: the way the teacup rattled in the saucer when he picked it up, domestic cats, processed cheese, and washing detergent commercials.
The old man never looked at the crooked photograph on the wall of his lounge room. It is possible that he had forgotten it even existed. But the woman in the photograph watched everything, and she waited.
On Wednesday at 9:00 am, still in his dressing gown and slippers, he pulled the trash can out to the curb in case he forgot later that night. Shuffling back up the path to the unit, he mock-hissed at number five's fat, earless tabby cat.
At 10:00 am, the old man put Fishing World magazine down on a pile of dried and yellowing handwritten notes. He barely saw the notepaper through the years the pages had rested on that very table. But from her place in the frame over the wallpaper, the portrait could read the top page of the faded handwriting: "Aust greats story idea: Bradman, D. Ave 99.94; Phar Lap. 37 from 51; Goolagong, E. 14 Grand Slam." There were many more statistics written on the dusty paper, but no story put flesh on their bones. The fading lines on the sheets underneath, if only the portrait could have seen them, remained blank.
The old man flipped the kettle on and lit a cigarette while he waited for the kettle to boil. He pulled out a teacup but not a saucer, set it on the table, and had another drag on the cigarette.
At noon, freshly showered, still with droplets of water in his gray hair and talcum powder between his toes, he made a ham, chutney, and cheese sandwich. He sat down at the kitchen table to eat; but before he started, he seemed to think better of the situation and got up again. He took two gingersnaps out of the cupboard, which he placed on the side of the plate for after. Then he sat back down and took a bite of the sandwich, which was cut in rectangles, not triangles.
At 2:30 pm, Days of Our Lives was on the television. He despised it, but it was insidious, and it was his evil addiction.
At 3:30 pm, he turned the television off. An ancient camera sat on top of the TV, coated in dust and moisture patches, its lens cap long since disappeared and its leather strap gathering mold. For the next half hour, the old man looked at the old camera on the blank television.
He thought about his youth.
Four o'clock in the afternoon was post time. As soon as the mailman motored away up the hill, the old man shuffled out to the boxes. He opened his and found nothing. Closed it. He opened it again and felt around inside in case a letter was lying flat in the box, and he missed it the first time. Nothing. Closed the box. Gathered all the detritus of junk mail that lay scattered over the top of the boxes and sticking out of the slots and on the ground around them, picked it all up, and took it to the recycle bin.
Hissed and stomped at the tabby on his way back inside, sending it scuttling into the laundry to hide.
At 6:00 pm, under the watchful eyes of the portrait in the crooked frame but not once glancing in her direction, the old man put down Fishing World and stood up, stretched, shuffled to the kitchen, and put a saucepan on to boil.
He plopped in five hot dogs, mixed up some powdered mashed potato with milk and water, sliced some fresh cucumber and tomato, and arranged them on a plate. He took a bottle of ketchup out of the fridge to allow it to warm up to room temperature while he cooked and set the kitchen table for one. There was a place mat, a coaster for his glass of orange juice, a knife, a fork, and a paper napkin like the one the stranger had sent him with the coffee stains.
At 7:00 pm, he finished washing up and turned on ABC News.
Soldiers were mistreating prisoners of war.
Bushfire season had started early in the nation's capital—two suburbs evacuated but no houses lost.
The prime minister looked likely to campaign the next election on homeland security.
The Greens were bickering.
At 8:30 pm, he watched Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The old man did—and knew he could be if he ever went on the show.
Add to his pet hates uneducated twerps who went on quiz shows with no adequate comprehension of sports, history, politics, science, Pythagorean theorey, or common sense.
At 10:00 pm, he bent and touched the air four inches above his toes ten times, trembled through ten push-ups, and, knees bent and hands behind his head, painfully crunched into ten sit-ups. Then he poured a shot-sized glass of whiskey, no ice, and drained it in one swallow. He brushed his teeth, changed into his pajamas, and was in bed by 10:30 pm, where he slept like a baby for precisely ten hours.
There was a telephone on his bedside table, but it did not ring. Each morning to evening was the same. The days followed one after the other without feature or change.
On Thursday at 9:00 am, still in his pajamas, the old man dragged in the trash can, smiling gently as the fat tabby ran in fear from the bin's rumbling. He finished off Fishing World, made his tea, and had his one cigarette at 10:00 am. Then he showered, started on Fisherman's Catch, and enjoyed a ham, cheese, and chutney sandwich at noon. Victor was up to his old tricks on Days of Our Lives, and at 4:05 pm, with the smell of two-stroke from the mailman's scooter still in the air, the mailbox was empty.
He read some more, watched a little television, and cooked a microwave dinner at 6:00 pm. He was in bed by 10:30 pm, following his personally designed mix of exercise and alcohol. All day, the telephone didn't ring. All day, the woman in the portrait watched the old man, and the old man didn't look at anything new or anything old.
On Friday at 4:00 pm, it was post time.
He put down Fisherman's Catch and shuffled to the mailbox in the wake of the two-stroke. Opened the box. Nothing. Felt inside to be sure. Nothing. Closed it, cleaned up the junk mail that was starting to accumulate again, and went back inside to his reading. No telephone calls that day.
On Saturday at 4:00 pm, there was no post, but he was aware.
Saturday, 6:00 pm. Today was day fourteen. Day fourteen was a good day because, every day fourteen, the old man would wake from his hibernation.
He showered late, and he shaved while his skin was still warm, carefully and slowly dragging the blade in the same direction as the growth of his beard.
He let out an audible "Ooh!" as he slapped on the aftershave, and, hair still dripping and talcum powder between his toes, he ambled to the closet.
The old man's stomach knew the time, and it grumbled, but he ignored it and pulled out his olive green trousers with the permanent press crease in the front and an Italian leather belt. He took out a short-sleeved collared shirt, already smooth from the ironing he did every Sunday afternoon after doing laundry, carefully tucked it in, and embarked on his second life.
On day fourteen, the old man left the house with a spring in his step—no shuffling. There was also no tabby in sight. He crossed the road, walked briskly up the hill without panting, and had a wait of about one minute, according to his watch, for the 380 bus into the city. He got off at Central Station and took another bus, which let him off on the corner of Crown and Liverpool streets. He almost jogged down the hill to Stanley Street, where he could hear voices and smell spaghetti Bolognese from three blocks away.
Here, every pension week Saturday, the old man became a young man without routine or chutney or television or framed photographs. Every second Saturday night, he was a loved and respected man, roughly hugged and shoved and punched and welcomed by the Italian Old Guard inhabiting Stanley Street.
"Prego!" Mario, the barman, yelled and poured the old man a grappa without being asked. They chuckled, argued good-naturedly about nothing much, and then they ambled outside to enjoy the late sunset at the metal tables outside of Mario's café, The Colonnade.
Soon, a cigarette hung loosely from the old man's lips, and he was unperturbed by the ash that gently littered his shirt.
Large, yellow umbrellas which, in an effort to brighten the outdoor tables, Mario had ordered the week before, shaded the old man and Mario from the evening sun. Inside, The Colonnade was a room in need of paint that housed a pool table of dubious descent, two ancient pinball machines, and a jukebox. Further in, unknown to daylight or hygiene, was a scattering of plain wooden tables and chairs. At one table, two taxi drivers made less-than-legal insurance plans. Where three tables had been pushed together, two actors of international fame met with a handful of unknowns for their weekly Narcotics Anonymous gathering. A poet sat alone in the corner, listening and writing. The waiters served up coffee, well made on a bad machine, and lemon and pistachio and vanilla gelati—unsurpassable flavors—made by Mario's lady friend Julia.
Outside where the two old men smoked, clouds spread lazily across the warm sky. Ancient Gino sauntered over from the pub across the road, eased himself into a chair the other side of the old man, and lit a cigarette. The three of them watched rain gather over the street in friendly silence.
Excerpted from AIRMAIL by Naomi Bulger Copyright © 2011 by Naomi Bulger. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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