By Jonathan Carroll, Ellen Datlow
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2002 Jonathan Carroll
All rights reserved.
Patience never wants Wonder to enter the house: because Wonder is a wretched guest. It uses all of you but is not careful with what is most fragile or irreplaceable. If it breaks you, it shrugs and moves on. Without asking, Wonder often brings along dubious friends: doubt, jealousy, greed. Together they take over; rearrange the furniture in every one of your rooms for their own comfort. They speak odd languages but make no attempt to translate for you. They cook strange meals in your heart that leave odd tastes and smells. When they finally go are you happy or miserable? Patience is always left holding the broom.
She liked candles in the bedroom. As far as Ettrich was concerned, candles were for churches, power outages, and the tops of birthday cakes. But he never said that to her, not even as a joke. She was very sensitive — she took whatever he said seriously. Soon after they met he realized he could hurt her easily, too easily. One nasty word or sarcastic phrase was enough to knock her flat. She confessed she had only recently gone beyond the point of feeling she had to please the whole world.
She said things like that. "I did drugs even though I hate them. But I wanted my boyfriend to love me so I took drugs with him. I was a terrible coward." She admitted to mistakes. Early on, she was willing to tell him some of her most revealing secrets. It was thrilling and disconcerting at the same time. He loved her a little.
One day while walking through town he passed the store. When it came to women, Vincent Ettrich's eyes were the most voracious part of his body. Even when he wasn't fully aware of it, his eyes saw everything that had to do with women: what they wore, how they smoked, the size of their feet, the way they pushed their hair, the shape of their purses, the color of their fingernails. Sometimes it took a second for him to realize something had already registered in his mind — a detail, a sound, a wisp. Then he would look again. Invariably his unconscious sensors had been correct — the sheen of sunlight off a green silk blouse pulled taut over a great pair of breasts. Or a hand on a table, a rough stubby hand, surprisingly connected to a chic woman. Or unusual almond-shaped eyes reading a French sport newspaper. Or just the radiance of a plain woman's smile that transformed her face completely.
The day they met, Ettrich walked by her small store. He'd passed it many times before on his way to work but never looked in the window. Or if he had he didn't remember what he saw. Part of the daily scenery, his life's backdrop. Today he looked and there she was, staring at him.
What did he notice first? Later he tried remembering that moment but came up blank. The full-length glass door to the shop was closed. She stared through it straight at him. Small. Maybe that's what struck him first. She was small and had the thin carnal face of a naughty angel. The kind of minor cherub lost in the corner of a fresco in an Italian country church. One with a holy expression, but something else is in that look, something wanton. It says the model for this heavenly spirit was probably the artist's mistress.
She wore a short blue summer dress that fell to just above the knees. Her looks didn't overwhelm him as some women's did, but he slowed and then did something strange. Ettrich stopped and waved at her. A small wave, his hand rose to about chest height. At the end of the gesture he thought why am I doing this? Am I nuts?
The air around him suddenly filled with the smell of hot pizza. He turned slightly and saw a guy walking nearby carrying a large white and red pizza box. When Ettrich turned back, the woman behind the glass door was waving back at him. For an instant, a second and a half, he wondered why is she doing that? Why is she waving at me? It was a nice wave, very feminine. Her right hand was pressed close to her chest, going back and forth like a fast windshield wiper. He liked the gesture and the way she smiled behind it — warm, not tentative at all. He decided to go in.
"Hi." He felt no hesitation. His heart was happy and calm. He was in his element. Vincent Ettrich had approached so many women over the years that he had his voice down to a science. This time it came out bright and friendly, good to see you! There was nothing dark in his voice, dark or macho or sexy in any way. If things went well in the next few minutes, he could use that stuff later.
"Hi." A small one in return from her, like a small child that looks at you hopefully and wants to come over but is wary. Her hand had turned in and rested on her left breast as if she were checking her pulse. "That was so nice. I liked that you did that."
His mind blanked. "Did what?"
"Waved to me. I don't know you but you waved. It was a little gift from a stranger."
"I couldn't resist."
She frowned and looked away. She didn't like that. Didn't want to hear yet another man say she was good-looking and he wanted to make contact. She just wanted that unexpected wave from a stranger and then return to her life.
"I saw you before you saw me," she said but still wouldn't make eye contact.
"I often walk past here but never looked in." He lifted his eyes and saw what was around him. It made him smile and then chuckle. They were surrounded by women's lingerie. Boxes and boxes of it — white, peach, black, mauve ... Bras and panties, thongs and eggplant-colored slips, sheer nightgowns were on display everywhere. Everything a woman loves to put on and everything a man wants to take off her. Ettrich loved lingerie stores. He had been in so many and bought so much of it for different women.
She pointed to his chest and wiggled her finger. "I was guessing you were a 34-B in a bra?" She smiled at him and it was a great one, full of humor and mischief.
He caught her line drive and threw it right back at her. "Do many women come in here who are actually happy with their breasts? Just about every one I've known thinks theirs are either too big or too small. Breasts are a touchy subject with women." He waited a beat to see if she would catch his double entendre. The sly look that slid across her face and the way her eyes widened momentarily said she got it. Heartened, he went on. "It must be tough working here."
"Because every day you've got to please customers who generally aren't happy with their equipment."
Her smile returned slowly. She had small slightly crooked teeth. "Equipment?"
Ettrich didn't hesitate now. "Sure, and your job is to outfit that equipment with the latest battle gear."
She moved her arm in an arc meant to take in the whole store. "Is that what all this is, battle gear?" She kept smiling. She was enjoying him now. He had one foot in the door.
Ettrich took a copper-colored satin bra off the counter and held it up as if it were a piece of evidence in a court trial. "Put this color on top of beautiful black skin and you've created a binary weapon." He put it down and picked up a periwinkle-blue thong that weighed as much as a whisper. "And this is a ground-to-air missile. Deadly at any range."
"If you wear it for your boyfriend he's a goner?"
He nodded. "Right. And there's absolutely no equivalent for men. Do you realize that? There is nothing a man can wear that has the same effect on women that these things have on us. It's not fair."
Her eyes appraised him. Was this man being fresh or funny? Did she want the conversation to continue? He felt he could almost see the question mark above her head. One of those great early moments had arrived. They'd had their hello, the first talk and banter. Now the "should we go on?" pause was here. The next play was hers. He was eager to see what she would do.
"What's your name?"
"Vincent. Vincent Ettrich."
She put out her hand to shake but then for some unknown reason pulled it back. It threw him off until she said, "My name is Coco. Coco Hallis."
"No! Your name is really Coco Hallis? That's amazing."
"Because it's an unusual name but I know someone else with the same one."
Now she didn't believe him although it was the truth. He could feel his connection with her weakening so he went for the dramatic gesture. Taking his cell phone out of his pocket, he dialed a number. The young woman crossed her arms and leaned back on her heels — a gesture that said nothing else but "Show me."
Bringing the phone to his ear, he waited a moment and then quickly handed it to her. "Listen!"
Taking it hesitantly, she listened. In time to hear a female on the other end say in a firm professional voice, "Hi, this is Coco. I'm out of the country for the next two months. You can reach me in Stockholm at —"
Coco Two handed the phone back to Ettrich while the recorded message was still playing. "That's unbelievable. What are the chances of that happening? What does she do?"
Ettrich slid the phone back into his pocket. "Oil exploration. She travels around the world looking for undiscovered oil deposits. Comes back from crazy places like Baku and Kyrgyzstan with great stories about —"
"And what do you do, Vincent?"
Part two had arrived. Because he was quick-witted and adept at guessing what the next big thing would/could/should be, he was an early success. But a career in advertising did not impress women unless they were in the biz themselves. No, women wanted to be swept off their feet by both a man AND his profession. The majority wanted to imagine themselves on the arms of titans, geniuses, or adventurers: at the very least artists, whom they'd inspire to even greater heights of imagination.
"And what do you do, Vincent?" How many times had he been asked that question in all the years he had pursued women? What did he do? He tried to move people to buy ketchup, sanitary napkins, and mediocre automobiles. He splashed color and greed and beautiful people in viewers' faces to persuade them to buy whatever he'd been hired to promote. That was the true description of what he did; however, he had learned to distort and finesse his answer. "Creative consultant" was a favorite phrase of his, whatever the hell that meant. But he had long ago learned women's eyes lit up when they heard one was "creative" so he threw it in whenever he could.
"I'm a professional hot air balloonist," he said to Coco Two.
Spontaneously she barked out a great big laugh and waved both hands around, dismissing him as if even the idea was ridiculous. "You are not!"
It was exactly the response he wanted. He'd read her correctly. "You don't believe me?" He smiled innocently.
"No, I do not. Do you always dress in a suit and tie when you're going ballooning?"
"You never know who you're going to meet up there." His voice was calm and self-assured. She'd just called him a liar but he hadn't raised an eyebrow.
"No, really Vincent, what do you do?"
"I'm a crane operator."
"Yes, you know those birds with the long legs —"
She hooted her laugh this time but it was as loud as the last one. It said she loved his joking around. "Come on, tell me!"
"I'm a French fryer. You know, dip them in oil, beret first —"
With some women the gimmick worked wonderfully. Distract them, make them laugh, but don't tell until you see their laughter fading and a wee bit of annoyance creeping in. That way when you did tell them, they were happy for the truth and almost grateful.
He watched the merriness fade in her eyes although her mouth was still lit with a big smile. The moment had come where if he didn't fess up she'd either be irked or think he was a weirdo.
"I'm in advertising."
"Are you good at it?" she asked without hesitation.
"Excuse me?" He'd never been asked that question before. Certainly not by someone he'd met only ten minutes before. Was he put off or intrigued by her chutzpah?
Picking up the blue thong he'd held moments before, she thrust it at him. "Sell me this. Tell me how you'd get me to buy it."
This was good, a sudden fun idea. Coco Two was turning out to be terrific. Playing along, he took the skimpy thing and stared at it. Ettrich was very good at his job and within seconds he had an idea.
"I wouldn't try to sell it sexy because that's what would be expected. You know the scene — a typically beautiful girl on a beach facing the water with her back to us, naked except for this. Nearby a cool-looking guy is staring at her. Forget it. Too mundane, too done, we've seen it a hundred times before. Are we doing a magazine campaign or TV?"
Coco crossed her arms and shrugged. She was pretending to be the client he was trying to impress. "Either. So no naked girls?"
"No naked girls. Use sex to sell dull things, things you don't think about — shaving cream, kitchen stoves. If you want to sell something that's already sexy, you should go in another direction."
In his pocket was a postcard he'd received that morning from his ex-wife Kitty. Although she loathed him, Kitty always sent good postcards. It was one of her ways of communicating with him without having to talk directly. This one was a photo of a tan Chinese Shar-Pei dog, that bizarre breed with so many wrinkles on its face and body that it looks like a large piece of melting caramel. The dog in the picture wore an ornate Mexican sombrero and looked heartbroken. Ettrich laid the postcard down on the counter. He took two empty three-by-five-inch file cards and a thick black marking pen out of his other pocket. With the pen he drew a large "X" across the dog's face on the postcard.
Coco looked at the picture, then at Vincent. He laid the picture down next to the thong on the counter. He wrote "MAN'S BEST FRIEND" in large block letters on both file cards. He put one above the X'd-out dog picture, the other above the blue panties.
"Something like that. Go in that direction."
Vincent didn't look up once to see her reaction. Holding his chin in his hand he kept staring at his advertisement, still considering it. He was in her shop but more than that he was in his own world. His work mattered to him, even when he was being lighthearted about it.
Some weeks later he took her to the restaurant Acumar. Everything about the place was obnoxious but Ettrich knew that because he was a frequent customer. It was the favorite restaurant of the executives in his company. Even the waiters there wore beautiful double-breasted suits, white shirts, and ties. They handled both food and customers as if either might stain their expensive sleeves.
If you are a success in life, there are places you must go and pay to be humiliated. It is an unwritten law that human beings must be tormented throughout their lives in one way or another. If you are fortunate enough to have risen to a social level where no one does it to you for free, then you must pay for the service. Trendy restaurants, exclusive boutiques, any Mercedes-Benz dealer, or your very own personal trainer saying how fat and out of shape you are being a few examples.
"Why is this place called Acumar?"
Ettrich was about to eat a thimble-sized wedge of bread topped with what looked like a sardine head resting on top of a dandelion. "I think it's the name of the owner."
Coco kept looking over her shoulder and turning in her seat to check out the elegant restaurant and the other diners. Ettrich could have told her she wasn't supposed to do that in a restaurant like this because it made you look like a rube, but he didn't. Anyway it was kind of nice watching her do it. He was used to women who played things so cool that nothing short of the Second Coming made them raise an eyebrow.
She picked up her sardine/dandelion hors d'oeuvre, looked at it and wrinkled her nose. "I don't like fish. Is it okay if I don't eat this?"
"Of course." He put his back down as a show of solidarity.
"Acumar. It's funny — If you have a name like Bill and call your restaurant Bill's, it sounds like a dump. Call it Acumar, it sounds mysterious and exotic." She looked at the long silver menu open under her hands. "Everything looks good here, Vincent. What do you think I should have? Oh no, look at that!" She frowned at the menu and her eyes narrowed.
"What? What's the matter?"
"Look at the name of that one dessert — 'Chocolate-covered God.' That's not nice. It's not funny and it's not nice."
Ettrich had to fight down a smile. Was she really that prudish and uptight about things? "Does that offend you?"
She was about to answer when a waiter passed in an obvious hurry. She put up a hand like a traffic cop to stop him. Something in the gesture or the look on her face stopped him instantly.
"I'm not your waiter but I'll get him for you."
"I don't want my waiter. I want you to answer a question."
"I'm really in kind of a hurry —"
"I don't care."
Both the waiter and Ettrich reacted the same way — they came to attention and watched her very closely.
"What is Chocolate-covered God?"
"This dessert on the menu. See? 'Chocolate-covered God.' What is that?" She pointed at the menu and tapped the item with her finger.
Puzzled, the waiter leaned forward a little for a better look. He clapped a hand over his mouth. "Oh, that's a misprint! It's supposed to be chocolate-covered gob, not God! I've got to go tell Acumar immediately. Chocolate-covered God. Is that a scream or what?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from White Apples by Jonathan Carroll, Ellen Datlow. Copyright © 2002 Jonathan Carroll. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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