from Nothing in
post-coital cigarette with Felice seemed the romantic thing to do, and
so I foolishly compromised my hard-won decade of smoke-free lungs when
she lit one of her foul, French, unfiltered punks. The red cinder passed
eerily between us in the dark while Felice talked about her father. As
a young man he had been a magician, Tortueux Le Magnifique, traveling
throughout Europe with his ravishing wife — who was also his stage assistant
— to seismic applause and wide acclaim. He was regarded as the continent's
master of appearances. But the War curtailed his performing career, and
he began a second life as a saboteur, assassin, and spy for the Resistance.
By the time Felice was born, he was long-settled into government work,
leaving home each morning with a briefcase and a smile, returning each
evening with slumping shoulders and sunken eyes. He barely spoke to his
family. As an adult Felice learned that her father was an interrogator
of unmasked Eastern bloc spies and infiltrators of the sort he had once
been. The power was on his side now, but for all the righteousness assumed
by the postwar, profit-making free world, he felt no moral mission in
his work. Felice's brother found him one morning hanging from a beam in
their backyard greenhouse, his open briefcase on the ground, the garrote
he had removed from it taut around his neck.
For me the
phrase to wring one's hands has long held repellent connotations.
I visualize my grandmother's ancient washing machine with its crank-operated
rollers extruding wet laundry, or I remember the factory worker who once
told me how an inattentive moment led to the crushing of his right hand
in a similar device. And yet, here was Felice, "wringing her hands" as
if to squeeze from them a deadly venom, her face a kabuki nightmare of
smudged makeup and emotional dishevelment. My wish to comfort her was
overridden by my need for facts — how she had gotten to my apartment
at this hour without a car or cab fare, for example — and I could not
help but wonder how she had so recently torn her left ear lobe.
I was sleepless
with dreams of Felice, the plaintiff at a trial which took place in a
room at an unspecified Holiday Inn. The jury — nine human-sized ferrets
in pin-stripes — sat or perched on the double bed beneath an oil painting
of the Golden Gate Bridge. I sat in a metal folding chair by the window
overlooking a parking lot while Felice stood opposite me, much taller
than in real life, clothed in a tight but business-like black suit. A
cleaning lady read the charges against me in a soft, lisping voice. I
was unable to hear her clearly, but I made out the words bubble and insinuate.
Felice moved aggressively in my direction, brandishing a scroll. She berated
me in German, a language I did not understand. I noticed for the first
time a large blue mole on her neck, from which a single thick hair emerged.
Somehow I came to realize that my defense attorney had died of a stroke
while purchasing a soda from the hall vending machine, and that a suitcase
containing several recently-shed snakeskins bore my fingerprints. I appealed
to the sisters — just emerged from the bathroom, giggling — for help,
but they left with the maid, whose services were needed elsewhere. Guilty,
cried the ferrets in unison. So it's true, I thought, fighting my way
toward consciousness, which turned out to be the inside of a rental bay
densely cluttered with objects I thought I had long ago discarded.