The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Love for Three Mangos

©2007 by Steven Alm

 

Escher, drawing hands, drew hands drawing Escher.

—John Meade

1

Marc sat up in bed and bellered like a sick calf. His head felt like an green olive stuffed with pimiento. His eyes watered. Sweat dripped from the end of his nose and fell on his chest. His mouth was dry. His heart raced. His stomach pressed against his ribs like a swollen melon. He was nauseous. His hands hurt and when he tried to pry them open, he found they were frozen into fists.

“Dammit, I’m mad!”

He laughed at this—loudly, uproariously—as if it were truly funny (though he realized he could also have said, “Detartrated!” which he didn’t like as well), and then dragged himself across the floor to the bathroom where he threw up. The tiles were cool. His breath stank of vodka. Still on all fours in front of the toilet, he remembered John Meade’s flawless, seven-word, mirror image sentence and immediately calmed down. Words often had this effect on him. Not only did it capture the essence of Escher’s work (a verbal image of a visual representation of a conjoined, alternative world), but it was also the perfect antidote to his wretched mood.

It had been a month since Abigail, his girlfriend of four years, had dumped him—the woman who insisted he was clueless and had no idea how to have a relationship, who told him he made love like an elephant, who said he was ugly, brutish, and stupid, who claimed she was diminished by everything he said, and who cursed him when they broke up with such venom that he couldn’t speak for days. To compensate—like a traumatized child—he scripted an imaginary world with a language only he understood. But he couldn’t keep it up much longer. He was running out of new things to say.

2

Above the hill from Marc’s apartment, the Cathedral of St. Mark looked like a large cement box overlooking I-5, the interstate highway which split the city like a contaminated river. Downtown Seattle sat between I-5 and Puget Sound like a mini Manhattan with its Space Needle, harbor, and two stadia; Boeing’s factories and fields extended for miles along I-5 south to the airport; and north of the cathedral, the University of Washington stretched along the shores of Lake Union and Lake Washington like a citadel.

St. Mark’s was unique. Started in 1928, it was left unfinished and never completed, because the Crash of 1929 drained the large Anglican congregation of funds. The proposed exterior of stone was never added, and the interior was left bare and topped with a ceiling of wooden beams, supported by four giant pillars. Even the windows were left incomplete. Cheap rectangles of colored glass were installed in place of the proposed religious scenes. In shape and appearance, the church looked like a huge square bunker. Along the walls, the lines from the wooden forms in which the concrete was poured were clearly visible. Stripped of all ornamentation, it was a place the congregation affectionately called the “Holy Box.”

Despite its austerity—or, perhaps, because of it—St. Mark’s was one of Marc Cram’s favorite haunts, and, on those days when he was not at a job site (though he had an English major, he worked as a contract CAD designer for architectural firms around town), he often climbed the steep hill from his small apartment above I-5 and sat alone on one of the pews. Cram was not Episcopalian, or even, religious. He simply liked the space and the solitude it offered. Acoustically, it was perfect. Sometimes, if he were lucky, he happened upon the music director playing the massive Flentrop organ that had been installed above the entrance in 1965, or find him practicing with a group of fellow musicians (the director also played the viola). Today he had encountered him and three other musicians playing a Mozart piano quartet, and Cram had slipped into his accustomed pew, stretching his arms along the wooden ridge in back, and listened, enraptured, to the music’s soothing tones and harmonies.

Today, more than ever, Marc needed to escape. No matter how much coke he snorted or vodka he drank, he still could not rid himself of the feeling that he was a virtual man—a two-dimensional avatar on a chat site, a handle who called himself “Wiki Man,” the nickname his friends had given him in high school because of his prodigious memory, twisted sense of humor, and love of words.

Marc’s eyes rolled back into his head, and for a long, rapturous moment, he lost conscious connection with his surroundings. His brain drank the music like ambrosia, the nectar of the gods, and he felt immortal, above everything, as if his personality and memories were being upgraded to the latest version of human software. When he opened his eyes again, he noticed a smallish, older man in white shirt and chinos, with a ruff of gray hair, scurrying from place to place, straightening papers and books in the racks behind the pews. Unlike Marc and the members of the quartet, he moved independently of the music, as if unaffected by it, oblivious to its rhythms and melodies. He nodded in welcome and moved toward Cram as of to say hello, but Marc stopped him by raising his hand. The idea of allowing a human voice to interrupt the flow of such heavenly music was unthinkable.

“Was it a rat I saw?” he wondered and fell back into his Mozart-induced trance.

After the finale of the piece, Marc rolled his shoulders up and back, tilted his neck from side to side until his ears touched his shoulders, rose from the pew to his full six-foot-eight-inch height, raised his arms above his head in a full stretch, and then sauntered over to the musicians in their enclave at the side of the nave. The violist and music director sat with their backs to Marc, chatting amiably with the violinist and pianist, who eyed him as he approached.

“Ecco Bello colle bocce!” Cram exclaimed.

Turning to face him—for in their musical studies they had never heard this Italian phrase before and assumed it was praise for they had picked out the words bello and what they assumed was voce—they nodded at Marc with modest smiles and mouthed their thanks.

“Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?” Marc asked.

Again, they nodded, but more cautiously this time, examining this overgrown twenty-something giant of a man standing in front of them like a white basketball player who spoke some strange dialect of English.

“Rats live on no evil star,” he said.

“You can say that again,” said the pianist, already catching on. The three others looked at him for some clue to help them explain the meaning of this odd way of speaking, but the pianist, a clever whippet of a man, offered none. For the moment, it was his own private joke.

“Madam, I’m Adam,” said Cram.

It was then the music director, the pianist’s close friend, caught on as well. “He goddam mad dog, eh?”

The pianist nodded. “Do geese see God?”

The two female members of the group, the cellist and violinist, exchanged glances with one another and rolled their eyes, implying it was male talk and, as such, absurd and beyond comprehension. Then, they turned toward Marc and waited for his next pronouncement. Instead of speaking, however, he smiled in appreciation of the wit of the pianist and music director and, nodding politely to them, headed for the entrance.

Laughing, the pianist called after him. “What do you have to say for yourself, young man?”

In answer, Marc turned, squaring his shoulders and raising his chin like a trained Shakespearean actor, and addressed them in his most stagey voice.

“Fool! A dog lives sad a boxer, Rex. O bad ass evil god aloof!”

This time even the men stared in stunned silence.

Pleased with himself, Marc left the church. It was the perfect exit. It had not been easy holding a conversation totally in palindromes. “Al lets Della call Ed Stella,” he murmured, letting the heavy wooden doors close behind him with soft sighs, shuddering inward by fits and starts until they stopped, both at exactly the same moment.

In the gray sunlight of the Seattle afternoon, Marc strolled along Tenth Avenue toward East Roy, where there was a coffee shop on two levels with large windows in which students often came to study at the round metal-covered tables. He had almost picked up a woman there a few days back, a young Croat with short blonde hair and a round, pretty face, who seemed to like him. He had tried to get her to come back to his apartment, but maintaining his unbroken string of palindromes had made this problematic, at best. The incident was typical of his relations with girls. Young women viewed him as an overgrown, nerdy intellectual who loved philology more than such manly pursuits as basketball and business, and, as such, was unsuitable for a relationship. After breaking up with Abigail, he had made the decision to speak only in palindromes until some woman, somewhere, saw through his disguise and embraced him for who he was, rather than rejecting him for what he wasn’t. If women were going to speak and act in ways he couldn’t decode, then so was he.

Imagining the rich espresso taste of the coffee filtered through the thick milky foam of his cappuccino, Marc rehearsed for the umpteenth time what he should have said to the beautiful Croat, if only he’d had the courage.

“Let’s go back to my apartment, baby.”

It would have been so much more effective than the words he actually used.

“Dr. Lime, 121 Emil Rd.”

The girl had looked at him with blank eyes, with no clue what he intended. So, he tried again.

“Dr. Awkward.”

At this, the lovely Eastern European had nodded in agreement and asked what kind of doctor he was. Marc had wanted to say, “A doctor of love,” but, of course, that wasn’t a palindrome. Instead, he said, “Dennis and Edna sinned.” Like everything else, this only made her crinkle her nose in confusion.

“What are you trying to say?” she had asked.

“Bishop made lame female damp? Oh, Sib!” he had exclaimed, if that explained everything.

As he walked along Tenth Avenue, a white taxi pulled alongside him and stopped. The cabbie, a thin, swarthy man with nappy hair (whom Marc took to be a North African), opened the passenger-side window and called to him in thickly accented English.

“Can you help me, mister?”

Marc nodded.

“Where is Jones-Harrison Residence?”

Marc knew it was on Pike, a dozen or more blocks ahead on Broadway, one of those new condo complexes which were being built all over Seattle, but there was no way he could fit that into a palindrome, so he put his hands around his throat and pretended to choke himself.

The cabbie stared blankly at him.

Searching for some gesture that would elicit the appropriate response, Marc pulled out his tongue and cut it off with a pair of imaginary scissors.

This last gesture made total sense to the driver, who, assuming he was mute, opened the door and motioned for him to get in.

“You direct me, okay?”

Buckling his seat belt, Marc pointed straight ahead. It was only then that he realized there was a passenger in back, and he turned to find an amused forty-year-old woman with wild brown hair who laughed as if she were riding in a bus full of stoned hippies.

“He has a GPS device, you know,” she said, “with a female voice that tells him where to go, which he can’t follow because he seems totally incapable of following directions of any kind, and he won’t listen to me because I’m a woman, so he stopped and picked up a male mute. Go figure. If it weren’t for my luggage, I’d walk it. Maybe, I should take a bus. What do you think?”

“Madam, I’m Adam,” said Marc.

“So you can talk.”

“Straw, no too stupid a fad, I put soot on warts.”

“Oh, of course,” she said. “You belong in a mental institution. How appropriate.”

“Able was I ere I saw Elba.”

“Hmmm,” said the woman, giving this some thought. “Wasn’t that something Napoleon said? It’s a famous palindrome, isn’t it? Are we playing some strange game of charades?”

Marc smiled.

“Bingo,” she said. “Do you really go through life speaking only in palindromes?”

He nodded.

The woman’s eyes shone with interest. “Are you doing it as a spiritual practice, like burying yourself alive or lying on a bed of nails? Are you a sadhu, yogi, or idiot savant? Have you taken too many drugs?”

He shook his head no.

“Is it some kind of protest? Hmmm, let me guess,” she said, mulling this idea over with a bemused expression on her lips. “You’re protesting against the imprecise use of language? Against George W. Bush’s malaprops? Against the absurdity of living in a country which is devastating the world and, instead, insists that it’s spreading democracy? Against gangster rap? Against the notion that we can ever really communicate with one another human being?”

Marc shook his head again.

“No?”

The woman, who was not averse to playing games herself, reclined in her seat and gave Marc a thorough examination. This was starting to be fun. She found him tall and gangly, but not unattractive. Though too young for her, he had nice eyes and a friendly smile. He was obviously smart. Also, obsessive and more than a little crazy, she figured. She felt an attraction, but it was more mental than physical. Nothing about him was romantic, she decided—until, pondering what had driven him to make this strange protest, she wondered whether, in fact, the opposite might be true.

“Is this about rejection?”

Just before they reached Pike Street, Marc grabbed the cabbie’s arm and pointed to the right, indicating he should turn at the next intersection.

“Camus sees sumac!” she shouted to get Marc’s attention again.

When he turned, the woman extended her hand. “I’m Susan Bell. Is your name really Adam?”

“Marc Cram,” he said.

“Ah, now I understand. Your parents saddled you with a palindrome, and now you’re trying to discover your true identity? You’re my kind of man, Marc Cram.”

“I am?”

At this, Susan threw back her head and laughed. “That was easy.”

Realizing that she had just gotten him to break his rule, Marc gritted his teeth and quickly added, “Mai.”

“Too late,” she said and continued to laugh. “Why don’t you cut the crap, Marc, and I’ll buy you lunch? Okay?”

“Diaper repaid,” he said.

“Yes, I understand. You’d prefer to continue your little game. So how many consecutive palindromes are you up to? A hundred?”

Marc shook his head no.

“A thousand?”

He shook his head again.

“Ten thousand?”

“A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!”

“You’ve been at this for some time, then?”

He nodded, and, noticing the Jones-Harrison Residence out of the corner of his eye, grabbed the cabby’s arm and screeched, “Eeeekeeee,” until he hit the brakes.

After paying the driver, Susan indicated he should assist her with the luggage, a large flight bag and a briefcase containing her computer.

“It would help if they could speak English,” she said, “and know the city. Or, at least, be able to read a map. Or, barring that, follow a voice on a GPS. But none of those things seem possible for the majority of our cab drivers.”

Marc picked up the bags and looked at her quizzically, wondering where she wanted to go.

“No, I’m not a stew,” she said. “I’m a specialist in mass psychology and consult with advertising agencies about creating the right messages for their target audiences.”

Marc’s eyes grew wide as he began to put the pieces together.

“You’re right. I suppose I’ve sold out,” she said. “With advanced degrees in psychology and sociology, I should have done something to help people, but I get terribly bored in clinical situations.”

He nodded at her knowingly.

“Sure,” she said. “That’s how I figured you out. At least, on the surface. Bring my bags to the elevator, would you, and then you’re free to go.”

The Jones-Harrison Residence was eerily familiar to Marc, who had helped architects design dozens of condos like it in Seattle. It was four stories tall, square and soulless, with big windows, balconies overlooking the street, metal doors, and a security system which even professionals couldn’t penetrate. He was surprised that Susan would choose to live in such a place.

“What can I say,” she said. “It’s new, and the price was right.”

“A tin mug for a jar of gum, Nita?”

“Something like that.”

Marc deposited Susan’s things in front of the elevator.

“I appreciated your help with the cabbie back there, and, I have to tell you, I’m very impressed with your personal quest, whatever it is. Give me a call if you’d like to have lunch some time,” she said, handing him her card.

Marc examined the card and stuck it into his pocket.

“I’d like to make a personal suggestion, though, if you don’t mind.”

He nodded, though his eyes grew wide in alarm.

“Malaprops might be better for your purpose than palindromes. They’re funnier and are more likely to be misunderstood. You might make more headway in your personal quest for whatever you’re after by being a bit more clear, don’t you think? Give it some thought,” she said, and stepped inside the elevator.

Just before the doors closed, she added, “Be sure to give me a call.”

But when the doors closed, he knew this was never going to happen. She was too old for him.

Still debating whether or not to follow Susan’s advice, Marc walked to Pine, and then up Pine to Broadway, where he stood at the corner of the large, open space in front of Central Community College. A light mist fell, but no one noticed or cared. The plaza swarmed with women of all shapes and sizes, some wearing boots and backpacks, some with scarves and halter tops, some finishing cigarettes and talking with friends, others walking with boyfriends, and still others waiting at the corner, giving Marc a quick look of disinterest, before crossing the street. He felt the same ache he had known in one form or another since first opening his eyes to the world of girls as a prepubescent eleven-year-old. Unrequited desire. Lust. A barrier he could never cross. Women, goddamned, fucking women.

“‘If I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!’” Marc laughed, suddenly recalling Sheridan’s famous sentence from The Rivals, and presto, passa, just like that, he decided to follow Susan’s advice.

The light changed, and as he stepped off the curb to cross Broadway, someone stopped him, asking for directions.

“Oh, sir.”

Oh, sir? he thought—What kind of shit is that?—and turned to face a young woman of no more than nineteen with black braided hair and lips sweet enough to make angels sing. Though she smiled at him, her eyebrows were creased in confusion.

“How do you get to Cal Anderson Park? It’s around her somewhere.”

“What are you incinerating?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes at him and pursed her lips. “What kind of jive is that?”

“I resemble that remark!”

“You think I’m some kind of punk ass fool?”

“Yeah, I super-size with you.”

The girl put her hands on her hips and glared at him, daring him to say one more word.

“However, they delineate—quotas, I think, vulcanize society.”

This last remark, though a direct quote of George W. Bush and quite wonderful as a malaprop, was the final straw for the young woman, who shouted abuse at him. Though the light was against him, Marc dashed across the street, dodging several cars and a bus before reaching the far side. The girl must have been blind, for it was here that Cal Anderson Park began. Across the sidewalk were a series of lighted, fenced-in playing fields for softball and soccer. On an open expanse of grass farther north was a fountain shaped like an anthill, a trough that collected water from it, and, behind that, a large reflecting pool, where the Lincoln Reservoir had once stood. It would have been easy to tell her this, of course, but he hadn’t been able to transform such basic facts into malapropisms. Besides, all she had to do was open her eyes.

“Hey, bitch, wait up!” the girl called, crossing the street when the light changed. Marc fled. He dashed inside the fence separating the fields from the sidewalk and made for the men’s lavatory, but it was no contest. She easily caught him.

“You big fool. The park’s right here. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I can’t even phantom how you must feel!”

“Do you think you’re funny?”

“I’ll just fade into Bolivian, if you don’t mind.”

“What kind of jive shit are you talking?”

“I can quite safely say without fear of contraception that, though I am replicant to spread rumors, when death comes, I’ll welcome it with open legs.”

The young woman stared at him as if he were the first sighting of Sasquatch in Seattle, a tall bear of a man with a severe case of mange, and kept staring until she suddenly smiled with a look of recognition. “I get it,” she said, beginning to laugh. “You’re a vast suppository of information.”

“There you go.”

“No, there you go,” she said. “You punk ass bitch. It’s about time you started talking like a normal human being, don’t you think? This is my first visit to Seattle and all I wanted were directions and, instead, I got a steady line of bullshit. Where’s the famous fountain?” she demanded.

To avoid annoying her further, he held his tongue and simply raised his arm and pointed north.

“See how easy that was?” she said and strode away.

Although he had been far from polite, Marc was not displeased with himself. It was the first time in recent memory he had gotten a reaction other than indifference from an attractive young woman. He followed her with his eyes until she disappeared behind the reflecting pool, and then he headed toward a used bookstore he was curious about—a cooperative called Just Books—where he hoped to pick up a copy of James Baldwin’s Another Country. He had read a review of it in the Seattle Intelligencer that morning saying it was one of the few novels written by a man that a woman could appreciate. Although he had never read it, Marc knew something about the novel and was still trying to puzzle this out. If women were basically monogamous (which his readings in psychology and sociology had convinced him was true), then why were such themes as bisexuality, interracial relationships, and extramarital affairs of interest to them? Perhaps, he’d pick up a copy of Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies at the same time (something Abigail had suggested he read), and compare the two.

Before he reached the entrance to the bookstore, two panhandlers stopped him. Both had gray, weatherworn faces, yellow eyes, and layers of clothing that only the rain had washed. Seeing panhandlers working in pairs was somewhat unusual, and he was curious what approach they would use.

The smaller one spoke first. “Got a few dollars, mister? We haven’t eaten in days.”

“Dullards?”

“Quarters, then.”

“That is the very defect of the matter, sir.”

“Huh?” said the bigger one. “You must have some change.”

“There’s no need to be prostrate with me.”

“What the fuck’s wrong with you?”

“I am a mother pheasant plucker. I pluck mother pheasants. I am the most pleasant mother pheasant plucker, to ever pluck a mother pheasant,” Marc said, gloating in his triumph until he realized he had uttered a tongue-twister instead of a malapropism. But when he saw the reaction of the two men, he felt suddenly ashamed. To punk hip, urbane Seattle wildlife was one thing, but to make fun of these men in their poverty and dissolution was unforgivable. He had become the worst kind of shit, an arrogant one. In penance, he gave each of them five dollars and ducked inside the bookstore.

Thinking only Shakespeare could save him now (or, if he got really desperate, the King James version of the Bible), he muttered lines from Julius Caesar as he entered the store, “‘And since you know you cannot see yourself, so well as by reflection, I, your glass, will modestly discover to yourself, that of yourself which you yet know not of.’”

The woman behind the counter watched him burst through the door, and, realizing he was saying something, tried to make out his words. “Are you looking for something specific?”

“‘I feel within me a peace above all earthly dignities, a still and quiet conscience.’”

This time she head him clearly and studied him with frank interest. He was very tall with curly hair and confident eyes that were both guarded and penetrating at once. His manner suggested a man too complex to be known, some kind of weird prophet, an intellectual who was too smart and arrogant to be comprehended by ordinary mortals, but she could see straight through him. There was nothing complex about him at all. He was desperately lonely.

“Words are like wine upon the lips sometimes, don’t you think?” she said, looking directly into eyes. “Whose were those?”

“Shakespeare’s.”

“Why not use your own?”

“I might as well speak in palindromes or use malaprops and be laughed at, for all the effect my words have.”

She nodded, encouraging him to continue.

“It started a few weeks ago with a dream, though it was more like a nightmare. Do you ever feel the gaps between your thoughts and sensations—that emptiness we never see with our conscious minds? Well, I did in my dream. And that emptiness, which was like a black space without substance, expanded until the distance between my thoughts grew longer and longer. It really freaked me out. I woke up thinking that this was death—or, at least, how death would feel. Kind of a leaking away of consciousness until there was nothing left. Do you understand?”

“It’s frightening to be yourself. It takes real courage until you get used to it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure why I said that.”

“What’s your name?”

“Heloise. What’s yours?”

“Marc Cram. Is your name really Heloise?”

“I’m afraid it is.”

“Some kind of parental joke?”

“No, they thought it was a beautiful name. Out of mercy, my friends call me Ellie.”

“Where did you go to school?”

“U-Dub.”

“So did I,” she said.

“What was your major?”

“English.”

“Mine, too. When did you graduate?”

“Last year.”

“And now you’re working in a bookstore?”

“That’s right, but it’s a cooperative, so I own part of it. Have you seen our website?”

“No.”

“Come around here,” she said, “and I’ll show you.”

Ellie Danann minimized the point-of-sale program on the screen and turned her monitor to the side so that he could see the Just Books website on her browser. The site was simply designed with the logo on top, images of the dust jackets of current best sellers in the middle, lists of staff favorites on one side, and a search box for locating books by author, title, keyword, or ISBN number on the other.

“I like it.”

“I designed it myself,” she said.

“You did? Mind if I play with it a moment?”

“No, go right ahead.”

“Is the inventory up-to-date?”

“For the most part. There are anomalies, of course. Books that have been stolen or misplaced, scanning errors, sometimes human errors. That sort of thing.”

“Who designed the linkages between the website and the database?”

“I did.”

“You did? Where did you learn programming?”

“I read a few books. It’s easy.”

“Easy? Only for nerds,” he said.

“I’m no nerd.”

“I can see that,” he murmured, examining the soft outline of her face, the slope of her neck, the strands of black hair falling across her shoulders, her long, arched brows and thick lashes, her dark, focused eyes, and her tall, angular frame. He had never seen such brown skin except on actors in Bollywood films. “Are you from India?”

“No, Ireland. We’re so-called Black Irish. Descended from Basques. From Galway. When I was three, my dad and mom moved to the United States and settled here. My grandfather still lives in Ireland in a cottage on Galway Bay.”

“But you don’t have an accent, Irish or otherwise.”

“There’s a slight softening of the vowels if you listen carefully.”

“Okay,” he said, amazed at how incredible it was to meet someone who shared his interests and seemed to like him. But Ellie wasn’t quite attractive enough for him. She was too dark and angular.

Ellie noticed his disappointment, but didn’t react. She had too much confidence in herself to let it bother her. She knew how attractive she was.

“What’s your grandfather doing there? Is he retired?” he asked.

“No. He wants to be the next William Butler Yeats.”

“You’re kidding. What’s his name?”

“Ben Danann.”

“Is he famous? What’s he written?”

“Only some poems and stories published in Irish journals, but that’s it.”

“How does he live?”

“On grants, his pension and savings, and the occasional reading.”

“How noble.”

“Yes, it is,” she said, glancing at him out of the corners of her eyes. “It takes real guts to keep going when very few people appreciate your work.”

“You really admire him, don’t you.”

“I do.”

Just then, the door opened and a customer stumbled in with a box full of books balanced precariously in his arms. His eyes pleaded for mercy. “Can I put them here?”

“No. On the counter over there,” Ellie said, pointing to a table with a separate cash machine in a room off to the side. “I can give you an estimate, if you like.”

“That would be nice,” he said and headed for the table.

“Mind if I look around?” Marc asked.

Ellie turned and smiled. “No, go right ahead.”

“I’ll be back.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Looking around the store, Marc found both new and used books—primarily publishers’ discounts or good used copies the store had purchased from customers like the one he had just seen. There were also brand new best sellers. It was a neat concept for a bookstore. The idea was to buy low and sell high, undercut the chains, reach as many customers as possible via the web, remain independent, and still make a profit. The large table near the checkout counter contained recently published books, all closeouts, marked down to half their cover prices. On a table next to that were stacks of paperbacks from the New York Times lists, and a series of staff recommendations. Ellie’s included chick lit and travel guides to Ireland. Other tables contained books on cooking, art, travel, and the like.

Exploring deeper, Marc discovered a maze of rooms containing shelves at odd angles stuffed from floor to ceiling with books. The workers, he noticed, were all women in their twenties who rushed about stocking shelves, pulling books, preparing shipments, laughing and talking among themselves, and answering questions from customers, but only when asked. Like Ellie, they wore blue T-shirts with the Just Books logo, a hip version of the yin-yang symbol, on the front and back.

Discovering he had missed the entire section containing fiction, Marc asked one of the women, a short, dumpy girl with blackened eyes and flaming red hair, where Baldwin was located.

“James Baldwin, the novelist?” she asked, taking an instant disliking to him.

“Yes.”

“Fiction’s in front. The books are listed by author. He’s under B.”

“How about Nancy Friday?”

“What about her?”

“Someone recommended I read My Secret Garden.”

“Every man should read it. Then maybe some of you guys would get clued in,” she said and abruptly turned back to work.

Annoyed, Marc impulsively said the first thing that came into his head. “‘This parting must be endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly.’”

The redhead wheeled around to confront him. “Is that supposed to be funny?”

“Only if you like bad poetry.”

“You shit.”

“Jesus, maybe I’m in the wrong place. Isn’t this the Isle of Lesbos bookstore?”

“Get your ass out of here.!”

“‘Now, as I look at you, my voice fails, my tongue is broken and thin fire runs like a thief through my body. My eyes are dead to light, my ears pound, and sweat pours over me.’”

Apparently not subscribing to the notion that the customer was always right, the woman grabbed Marc by the sleeve and dragged him forcibly to entrance. There she opened the door and was preparing to chuck his ass into the street, when Ellie stopped her.

“What are you doing, Rose?”

“Throwing this shit out.”

“Why?”

“He quoted Sappho to me—at least, I think it was Sappho—and as much as said I was a lesbian.”

“Why?”

“I have no idea.”

“What did you say to him?”

“Nothing.”

“I see,” Ellie said, and took charge of Marc as if he were a naughty child in need of correction. She grabbed his free arm, pulled him away from Rose, and began to admonish him in the third person. “This one has poor impulse-control, don’t you, baby? He’s thinks he’s still in high school. I’m thinking he wants to apologize to you, Rose.”

Marc glared from one to the other and decided he was having none of it. He resented Ellie’s tone. Worse, he hated being treated like a child. For the first time in weeks—maybe for the first time since he was a child—he let go of every ounce of self-control at once, and with nothing to stop it, his rage and frustration came gushing out of him like blood from a wound.

“Are all women bitches? Or is that simply my misguided perception? How do you get this way? Are you born nasty? Is it part of your DNA? Or do you ingest it with your mothers’ milk? What gives you the right to treat me like I’m some kind of—”

Ellie cut him off. “You bring it on yourself, Marc. Every time you open your mouth.”

“You go, girl!” said Rose.

“How do you figure?”

“You’re like the Bastille. Everything you say is designed to keep people away. You’re so afraid of being hurt, that you jump the gun and beat everyone to the punch.”

“And how do you know this?” he coughed, trying to keep his head from spinning.

“One conversation with you is all it takes, Marc. Maybe you think you’re some kind of mystery man, but the truth is you’re as transparent as a sheet of glass.”

Marc gave Ellie a long, stricken look and stood there, hurt and confused, gulping and gasping for breath like a strangled chicken.

“What an asshole,” said Rose, and disappeared into the bowels of the store.

“Good, you didn’t run,” Ellie said, pleased he had endured her criticism. “All it takes is one moment of courage to change your life forever.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do,” she said, but giving him a quick glance and seeing how cute he was, she added, “Come back at 7:00 and you can buy me dinner. Okay?”

“Okay,” he said, now more confused than ever.

3

Hearing someone clear her throat, Ellie turned to find one of her regulars, a retired opera singer named Lillian di Agostino, dropping two books on the counter, one after the other, like quilted potholders. As usual, Lillian was dressed to kill. She wore a blue outfit trimmed with ostrich feathers and enough makeup to make her features visible from the last row in the balcony.

“Want me to ring those up?”

“Sure,” Lillian said, giving Ellie an inquisitive stare. “Who was that guy?”

“Which guy?”

“The tall, young man who just left.”

“Oh, that’s Marc Cram.”

“Then I do know him,” Lillian said with a mischievous grin.

“How?”

“He had a part in an opera I once sang in. ‘Love for Three Mangos.’ Remember it?”

“Sorry, I’ve near heard of it. What’s it about?”

“About a young prince, helped by a friendly wiccan, who goes to distant lands in search of three mangos, each of which contains a princess.”

“I thought it was called ‘Love for Three Oranges.’”

“Not this version. It’s a comic opera. A parody.”

“Which role did you have?”

“The wiccan, of course.”

“Of course,” said Ellie. “Was Marc good?”

“Yes, he was very good. He had choir boy’s voice with perfect pitch.”

“So, when was this? About ten or fifteen years ago?”

“The production got rave reviews. Want to hear what the Intelligencer said?”

Noticing other customers waiting, Ellie decided there wasn’t time. “How do you want to pay for the books, Lillian?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, handing Ellie her credit card and pawing through the small stack of bookmarks on the counter. “Do you still have those cute bookmarks?”

“Which ones?”

“The ones with the old man sitting in a chair surrounded by piles of books.”

“I think we’re out of those.”

“That’s too bad. I really liked them,” Lillian said, and after scrawling her signature on the receipt, added, “Marc was a cute kid, but he could be really squirrelly at times. During one rehearsal, the music director got so annoyed with him that he threatened to kick him out off the production, but Marc—and this was coming from a twelve-year-old-kid—calmly told him that the rehearsals were going well, the production would be a great success, and that he should relax. Of course, everyone laughed, but we knew it was true. So did the director. It was a such confident thing for a young boy to say, don’t you think?”

“Of course.”

“The other thing I remember was—”

Growing tired of the old woman, Ellie shifting her attention to the next customer in line. “Can I ring those up for you?”

But Lillian was not to be upstaged so easily and continued,“—was how shy Marc was around girls. For a kid with so much confidence, it seemed strange to watch him fumble with words and turn bright red whenever a girl came around. There was one, in particular, who—”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I saw how he looked at you.”

“Meaning?”

“You’re the princess he’s searching for.”

“Ah, now I get it. When he slices open his last mango, I’m the beautiful, young princess who will pop out and fulfil his every fantasy—just like in the fairy tale. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have customers at attend to.”

“No, Ellie, that’s not what happened. Each time he sliced open a mango, the young woman materialized too quickly for him to capture her.”

Ellie reached for Lillian’s arm, ready to show her out, if necessary, but old opera singer was one step ahead of her. At the door, she dramatically turned, raised her arms, and slipping into her role as the warm and understanding wiccan of “Love for Three Mangos,” sang her parting benediction to the prince before he traveled to foreign lands.

By the Earth that is her body

And by the air that is her breath

And by the fire of her great spirit,

And by the living waters of her womb, the circle is open but unbroken

May the joy of the goddess live in our hearts

Merry meet and Merry part

And Merry meet again.

Pleased that her voice was still powerful enough to fill a large room, the old opera singer made a grand bow to her startled audience and with a flourish of feathers vanished through the door.

Rose came running. “What in hell was that?”

“Just Lillian, reprising her role as the good witch in ‘Three Mangos.’”

“What?”

“Never mind,” Ellie said. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

4

Marc left the apartment several minutes early and headed up the hill toward the bookstore and his date with Ellie. All afternoon he had thought of nothing else. In his mind, his encounter at Just Books had become emblematic of a new beginning, an opportunity to believe in something again, a chance to put his failed attempts at love behind him.

I-5 smelled like a sulfurous crack in the earth belching fumes, and ahead of him at the top of the hill, Broadway beckoned with its familiar haunts—the pool hall where he drank beer and played eight ball until two in the morning, the sushi bar with its double-tall glasses of saki which he guzzled during happy hour, the garishly lit video store lined with lurid movie posters where he rented his DVD’s, the liquor emporium with its iron bars and thirty different kinds of vodka, the coffee shop in the old bank building where he sat behind his laptop working on his blog for hours, and the grimy bathroom in the bar where he scored his coke. His life seemed as empty as the neighborhood.

By the time he reached the bookstore, he imagined Ellie would welcome him with open arms, and though she was glad to see him and gave him a bright smile, she made no movement toward him, not even offering a hand. She was being cautious, he knew, biding her time until she got to know him better. Actually, it was best this way. Each would discover the other slowly, evaluating the pros and cons of a relationship until both were certain it was right for them. Then they would begin the long process of setting forth mutual goals and objectives, exploring each other’s likes and dislikes, seeing if they were compatible physically, and, at the very end, deciding logistical questions, such as who should move in with whom, which car to drive, how to handle the parents, and when to make the engagement announcement.

“Did you bring a mango with you?” Ellie asked with a wry smile.

“What?”

“A mango,” she said, lifting a penknife from the counter and offering it to him. “You can slice it open with this.”

“Huh?”

“To see if your princess pops out,” she said.

Marc searched Ellie’s face for some clue that would explain what she was saying, but there was none. It was like listening to a drugged sybil foretell his fate in the form of a riddle. “I don’t understand.”

“Remember the opera you were in as a boy?”

“Which opera.”

“‘Love for Three Mangos.’”

“How did you know about that?”

“Lillian told me.”

“Lillian di Agostino?”

“She was here this morning and thought she recognized you.”

“I wondered if that was her,” he said, and glancing away, his eyes skipping across the sea of books, focused on a simpler time when he was a young star with a perfect voice whom everyone loved.

By his reaction, in a flash of intuition Ellie understood Marc’s frustration, lack of confidence, and inability to communicate all at once. “The Love for Three Mangos” had been his high water mark. In a split second she made her decision. First, however, she needed to punish him by showing him what he would never have.

“Look at me,” she said.

“Why?” he asked, but Ellie’s strange words shocked him into seeing her as she was—an extraordinary woman whose eyes shone with confidence and grace—and as the scales fell from his eyes, she was transfigured into the most beautiful of women.

“You’re lovely,” he breathed.

“I know,” she said. “It’s about time you saw me, but it’s already too late.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re not going out, now or ever. So, if you don’t mind, I’d like you to leave.”

“Why? What did I do?”

“Please just go, Marc. I never want to see you again.”

Marc stood by the door in shocked silence for several moments, and then like someone who had been shot and left for dead, he stumbled outside into the Seattle twilight. On the street, cars passed without making sounds. People ambled by, moving their mouths, but no words came out. Even the rain falling at his feet was silent. It was going to be like this until the day he died, he knew—sullen, wet, and unbearably painful.

“Eros? Sidney my end is sore,” he murmured, though without a hint of mirth, and headed toward the pool hall.