Eric J. Guignard, Baggage of Eternal Night
Baggage of Eternal Night
Publisher: JournalStone, 2013
Length: 111 pp.
Audience: adults; 16 and older
1963 Detroit is a hotbed of gambling, and the weekly baggage auctions keep a busy trade. Regulars, Charlie Stewart and Joey Third, are skilled in the methods of successful bidding, but when Joey lands a mysterious suitcase, the thrill of winning turns to fear once they realize they’ve opened something sinister.
Inside the suitcase is an antique gramophone, and the music it plays is unlike anything these men have heard before. A chanting voice speaks to them in strange words and begets visions of a dark, frozen land. It’s a voice that makes them sick with addiction, and it continues chanting in their heads even when the record stops playing.
Charlie sets out to solve the mystery of who recorded the unholy music and how to turn it off forever. But time is against him, and the urge to listen-the addiction-to the song grows stronger. And the more it plays, the more the aural virus spreads, until people begin to vanish... feeding the soul of a spirit seeking immortality.
I want to tell you about Joey Third.
You probably never heard of Joey before, but at one time in the early 1950s he was a big-shot gambler in the underworld circles of Chicago and Detroit. Joey Thurston was his real name, but Joey Third is the name some wise guy called him on account of there being three different Joeys gambling one night in Little Louie’s Den. After that, the name just stuck.
Joey and I became good friends. I didn’t get to know him until after his poker days were over. I wouldn’t have associated with him in those backroom circles anyway; those were the tables run by gangsters like Joseph Zerilli and Angelo Meli, men who could make you vanish if you laughed at the wrong joke or they didn’t like the color of your tie. But by 1959, Joey had quit with the cards. Seemed that when he lost at poker, he really lost big. And when he won... well, he still lost. After a night of straight aces, two mucks accused him of cheating and broke every bone in his left hand with a framing hammer. I don’t believe Joey ever cheated-the times I knew him, he would return a gold watch to a man that dropped it on the street. I think those mucks that busted his hand were just sore losers. That, or their bosses were.
Anyway, how I met Joey was at the baggage auctions. Joey may have soured on cards, but he was a gambling man at heart. I began to recognize him at places like Roman’s and the liquidation house on 23rd. I got used to seeing him waving that crippled hand of his up in the air, those ruined fingers askew like the twisted legs of a dead spider. Joey had an affable presence about him, a sense that, whether he was joking or irritable or even plain silent, one could still find companionship just by standing next to him. He was a genuine people-person. I won a few auctions over him, and he won a few over me, and pretty soon we’d get to drinking a couple mugs afterward, bearing a bond of baggage gambling.
Now, in case I’m getting ahead of myself, let me explain what a baggage auction is, for those of you not around during the war in the Koreas. These auctions are for pieces of luggage that go unclaimed at all the big hotels. Maybe the guests forgot about the baggage. Maybe folks got locked, up or they didn’t pay the bill... maybe they died. The bags are sold off unopened to the highest bidder. You never know what you’re going to find inside, but with a little education and experience, you get pretty good at guessing. A big, frumpy carpet bag with paisley print on it likely contains some old marm’s stockings and brassiere. A scuffed attaché case might contain make-up or the display merchandise of a traveling salesman. A midsize valise, plain in color, but from a high-end manufacturer-well, those are the best to go after. More often than not, you’ll find a gentleman’s vanity or lady’s jewelry inside. The first time I competed in an auction, I bid one dollar and won a dented footlocker speckled on the front by dark stains. Inside was an envelope stuffed with ten fifty-dollar bills. After that, I was hooked for life.
The tale I want to tell you about Joey Third involves a leather suitcase he won at a baggage auction. I want to tell you about what was inside that suitcase.
It all began late on a Thursday afternoon in the midst of July. I remember that day because the Tigers had taken an awful pounding by the White Sox for three days in a row. The whole city just seemed to slump at that, as if every building and car were inflatable and air slowly leaked out from the seams. People were in a foul mood and the summer heat didn’t help none. The baggage auctions were normally a hoot for Joey and me both, but our hearts didn’t seem to be in it that day.
The auctions were a weekly event, every Thursday afternoon, and that day it was held offsite in a distribution warehouse that doubled as a union hall. There weren’t even chairs to sit on. We just stood in a large group, sweating and small-talking. Most of the guys in there knew each other-we all traveled to the same auctions the way you would follow horses at the tracks. We had our favorite auctioneers and our favorite hotels that the luggage came from. Today wasn’t much different except we were in the warehouse rather than a lodge or liquidation house.
Joey and I worked our way over to Ray Galler, a friend from the north side of town who owned a couple consignment shops. Ray was also an art and collectibles dealer who bought anything of value that we won. Between his stores and his private dealings, Ray could find a buyer for just about anything, if the price made sense. He was only a few years older than us but twice the hustler. I didn’t make a lot of money from the auctions or races or my other gambling ventures-I also ghost-wrote political editorials to pay the bills-but to Ray, the auctions were a way of life.
He had a habit of snapping his fingers when he spoke, as if the words hid a secret beat only he could hear. He snapped away. “Charlie, Joey, what do ya say? Anything lookin’ hot?”
The bidding started at five o’clock, but you were allowed to preview the closed baggage for an hour before.
“Your eyes are as good as mine,” Joey said.
“What do you think of the big steamer trunk over there?”
“I saw it,” I replied. “Had nice locks, solid brass and polished. Somebody took good care of it.”
“Could be some nice artwork inside,” Ray said.
“Or Grandma’s family photos,” Joey replied. “Bet it wasn’t used for nothing but a hope chest, filled with baby clothes.”
“But why would someone cart it along to a hotel if that’s all it held?” I asked.
“People bring strange things with them when they travel. You should know that by now.”
Joey was right; I did know. The wonder was endless when it came to trinkets that people found valuable. I once knew a man who was destitute and homeless, but who carried with him a large box of baby rattles wherever he went. Those rattles meant the world to him, but to anyone else it was a collection of pastel-colored crap that sounded like shattering glass whenever he moved.
The auctioneer arrived and announced it was time to start bidding. Before you could whistle, the first suitcase was carried in by a porter and the auctioneer jumped right into the whole spiel. He was country-fat-the kind raised on gravy and hog-and his teeth stuck out as if his mouth caught fire and every chomper tried escaping in different directions. But his voice was molten honey, burning hot and pouring from between those screwy teeth in a flood of sweet words.
“First up open bid, one dollar for the green soft-case, do I hear one? One! Over there, do I hear two? Two! Over there, now three, give me three, three dollars for the soft-case. Three! The man in the back, going four, now four, do I hear four? Four! Man in the green coat, going five, now five, going five once, going five twice. Sold! Four dollars, man in the green coat.”
The first case sold in about seven seconds, and one porter set it aside, while a second porter carried in the next item, a canvas tote bag.
As a matter of habit, Joey and I bid the minimum-one dollar-on just about anything, and the bids increased depending on our interest. The experienced bidders let the price rise on its own, as it didn’t make sense to inflate the market right away on used items. That’s how you could tell those who knew what they were doing against the dabblers, anyone who was anxious or inexperienced. Ten items into the auction, and one guy outbid everyone by yelling out forty bucks right away for a leather portmanteau. That suggested maybe it was his own to begin with and he needed it back. I used to think a sudden high bidder knew there was something valuable inside an item and tipped his hand the way a guy over-bets at cards when he’s got a royal flush. I went up against a couple of those schleps in the past and won, only to find the case filled with stockings and rotting knickers. I lost a lot of money and couldn’t get the smell from my nose for a week. You just never can figure out the motivation behind some people’s bidding decisions.
As it was, we never did find out what was in that portmanteau, or if it was worth the money he over-bid. It was house policy-and common sense-that you opened the bags privately, off premises. There were two reasons for this: first, the auction houses didn’t want winners to just skim the contents and leave the empty luggage lying around for the proprietor to have to dispose of. Second was for the safety of the winners; you didn’t want to open a case in front of hoods when a trove of valuables might be stuffed inside.
That auction, Joey and I each won a couple of suitcases and purses. Just before we were set to leave and after the auction had ended, one of the porters ran up dragging a heavy leather case that had somehow been set apart from the others. The auctioneer announced there was another item, but most of the bidders were already leaving, and the rest had spent all their money. Joey won that last item with his default opening bid of one dollar.
Afterwards, we went back to our apartments. Joey and I lived in the same building, me on the sixth floor and him on the fourth, of a complex that once had been a swanky hotel during the thirties, but since then changed owners and suffered renovations, so that linoleum and Vacancy placards overlaid the memory of its glitz. Les Deux Oies. That was its name-French for “The Two Geese.” I’m told the hotel was originally owned by Hollywood Jews, designed by Swedes, built by Italians, and then christened in French. Maybe that’s why it never succeeded: the national melting pot philosophy never seemed to fare well when it came to local business economy. Folks get confused, and a hotel ends up being called “The Two Geese.”
We elected to go to my apartment, as it was filled with slightly less leftover luggage than Joey’s. That’s the burden of the auctions-we brought things in faster than we could dispose of them. Piles of teetering boxes and empty suitcases pressed up against the walls of our homes, nearly as high as the ceiling, placed where other men might erect bookcases or cabinets. Containers of shot glasses were stacked on cartons of bowling shoes that sat upon cases of screwdrivers that all listed precariously above egg crates filled with gloves and flashlights and tubes of artist’s oil paints. Then, that was bookended on one side by the props from someone’s Coney Island magic show and on the other side by a locker filled with the equipment of a man who scaled Mount Everest. Neighboring bulwarks were composed of magazines, German steins, fishing lures, candles, cufflinks, sports gear, batteries, bottle caps, typewriters with missing keys, ornamental Easter eggs, jars of face cream, wood carvings, cameras without film, and a thousand other items I meant to inventory but never got around to.
I brought out a couple of Stroh’s beers, and Joey and me settled down on my living room floor to open what we won today.
It was like Christmas between us. We took turns opening each piece of luggage one-at-a-time, so as to share the excitement of its contents with each other.
“Lookee here, Charlie,” he said as he popped the latches on a pink-striped carton. “I got a fancy evening gown. Maybe you have something I’ll trade you for. This would make a nice gift for your lady friend to really impress her.”
“Keep it. I’ve got a dozen in every color already stored in the back of my closet.”
He laughed. “Yeah, I’ve got more broads’ clothes than I do of my own. If anybody looked in my closet, they’d think I was a fruit.”
I chuckled at that. Both our apartments looked like second-hand stores, filled with the junk of Detroit.
It was my turn, so I unlatched a valise. “Couple wigs in here to match your dress. A bunch of medications for stomach illness. Pair of Bibles. I suppose you need a backup in case the devil clips the first copy from you.”
“The Gideons would be proud.”
When you get to be middle-aged like we were, there’re not a lot of thrills left in life, but opening the cases made us feel like excited children, exclaiming over what was inside. Sometimes we moaned over the contents, as a child does when finding a lump of coal in his stocking. Other times we shrieked with rapture, like the time Joey won a bid and found a stash of ruby-lined gold rings hidden inside, or when I found the polished old sword and pistol of a conquistador wrapped in gingham cloth at the bottom of a crate.
Today, it was mostly moans. Our other luggage held old men’s shirts, dirty britches, hair tonic, and some nice shoes that were too large for either of us.
“Not even Ray’s going to want any of this,” I said. “I think we got skunked.”
“Speak for yourself. I’ve still got that left-behind case that I won. It’s old and heavy, and I’m feeling good about it.” He held his hands over the case, as a mystic might do in order to discern its hidden power. “I’m hoping someone left bricks of gold inside.”
Joey’s last case did look old, and it looked European, like the kind of luggage shown on posters for luxury cruise liners that crossed the Atlantic. The large frame was wrapped in brown leather and crossed with a pair of double-stitched belts. Its handle appeared to have been carved from a hard, white substance like ivory, and there were similar white stones with a greenish hue embedded along the edge of the case where it would open apart.
“Never seen a piece of luggage quite like this,” he said.
The suitcase was the size of two couch cushions stacked on top of each other and fastened by a thick bronze padlock overlaying the latches. “Don’t suppose a key came with it?”
We owned a hammer and a set of chisels for breaking apart locked baggage. More often than not, however, we didn’t need to use them. Joey maintained a collection of lock picks and the knowledge of how to use them. He selected a hook pick and twisted it around inside the lock for a few moments with his good hand. It clicked apart. Joey tossed the padlock aside and opened the case.
Inside was a gramophone, the old type of record player that was popular during turn-of-the-century years, with the horn speaker like a funnel that the sound came out from. I’d only seen units like that in the city museum and antique stores.
“Maybe we can invite some dolls over and have a party with this,” he said.
I thought of my girlfriend, Gail, who dressed nice and smelled good all the time and kept her home spotless. She hated coming over to visit me here. ‘Filthy,’ was the word she most frequently used to describe my living conditions.
“Gail’s not too keen on carousing where stacks of boxes might topple onto her,” I said.
“I didn’t say which dolls to invite.”
“Always causing trouble, ain’t ya?”
Joey grinned. His lips pursed together and his cheeks rose, reminding me of a little boy who might suggest we sneak a sweet from the confectioner.
“Anyway, it probably doesn’t work, it’s so old,” I said.
“And maybe it does,” he replied. I couldn’t tell if he was ribbing me or really was hoping to throw an impromptu bash. I hated people visiting whom I didn’t already know. Gail was admittedly right in the description of my living conditions, and it embarrassed me.
Joey pulled the record player out and lifted the horn into place. The base of the player was rich-grained wood, sized about one foot in all dimensions. The turntable and horn were brass. A handle, like the crank of an old car, punched out from one side.
“I remember my grandmother used to have one of these in her sitting room,” I said. “A real lively bird she was, playing music every afternoon, recorded by the pianist from her church.”
“My grandma just whipped me with a stick of elm if the chickens weren’t fed by sunrise.”
“Is that why you’re so damaged?”
Joey slapped me on the shoulder, and his chuckle made the room feel twice as large. “Here’s cheers to grandmas, though I’d rather be cheering to some younger dames.” He popped the cap off another Stroh’s and downed half the bottle.
He continued. “I’ll get this working and you’ll either have a shindig with me, or I’ll make you listen to piano gospel all night.”
“Let’s see what else you’ve got in there first.”
Inside the old case were two more boxes, each with a flip lid, and I opened them.
Joey fingered through one. “Looks like there’s quite a library of records in these boxes to mix it up. I suppose it’s hoping too much for some Perry Como or The Shirelles.”
Between the two boxes, I estimated there were about forty or fifty albums, each a flat black disc of wax. None of them were identified by labels, and each disc appeared identical; thick and handmade, with deep grooves set wider than the stereophonic vinyl albums of today.
“What do you make of this?” I asked and pointed at one of the boxes. A series of lines in strange writing like Eastern European characters were sketched in ink, followed by numbers, as if a series of ledger entries.
Joey set the gramophone on a chair and began winding the mechanical crank. Old record players worked like music boxes; the sound was produced through manual effort, without electrical amplification. “I don’t know,” he said, “but let’s hear what they’ve got to say.”
I pulled out a record, and Joey set it on the turntable. He released the crank. At first there was silence. I took another swig of Stroh’s.
It started off with a scratching sound, like a hen trying to dig around in a yard made of sheet metal. Then some old-timey horn blew the most melancholy notes I ever heard, and that was followed by something that could have been a clarinet that played even more doleful than the horn. I heard a tinkling which might have been a piano and something else I couldn’t even guess at, that sounded like someone with molasses in their throat breathing fast into a paper sack. If that was what music sounded like in the early nineteen hundreds, I understood why the country soon fell into a Depression.
“Makes me want to stab ice picks through my ears,” Joey said.
The instruments played for half a minute in choral rhythm, following a series of timed beats and then crashed together in a burst of clatter, before slowing back down again. I once visited New Orleans in my younger days and heard the slow jazz marches of a funeral procession. If I had to make a comparison, this record sounded closest to that, only the instruments here were off-key and played together like children experimenting with contraptions found in the city dump.
And then a voice spoke.
Or, rather, chanted. Joey and I looked at each other. I immediately felt nauseous, the way castor oil curdles in your guts, and I saw Joey felt the same. The voice was a man’s and he spoke in slow solemn words, the intonations seeming to reverberate throughout my room in low bass rumbles. The words were unfamiliar, but emotions dripping with wet fog somehow filled each syllable, and my head swooned.
Vkhodite. Vkhodite. Vkhodite.
Ne zaderzhivat’sya v kholodnyy i temnyy, ho prisoyedinit’sya ko mne v svet navsegda.
Vkhodite. Vkhodite. Vkhodite.
The sensation changed and the nausea reversed until euphoria touched me. The words repeated over and over and each became a finger rubbing inside my temples, massaging my brain. The world seemed to shift slightly beneath me; shadows grew longer from behind the stacked baggage, and my thoughts slowed. I felt relaxed like slipping under the water of a warm bath.
I lost track of time as the chanting words repeated themselves. I descended further into the bath, floating free in a stillness that must be like what an embryo experiences as it develops in the womb.
Though I felt good, almost weightless, I sensed something was out of line.
“Turn it off,” I finally said to Joey. He looked at me from far away, and his eyes were heavy-lidded, as I felt mine must have appeared to him. His expression though was wan as if he couldn’t fathom who spoke, much less act on my directions.
I had to focus on the movements in my arm, but I willed myself forward. The record must have been playing for at least ten minutes, yet the needle still played in the first groove of the disc, as if it had only begun. I lifted the needle, and the sudden silence was like the slap of a cold hand.
Joey’s eyes focused, and he leaned back to lie on the floor. “Mama, I feel like I just came off a three day-bender.”
“I feel like someone slugged me in the temple.”
He rolled over and grinned. “Sure beats Grandma’s church music.”
I couldn’t agree with that; I thought I’d rather listen to a hundred hours of piano hymnals than just a second more of that strange man’s chant. His voice-those words-echoed in my mind.
Vkhodite. Vkhodite. Vkhodite...
The words were unfamiliar, yet they spoke to me. I couldn’t understand them, but I believed it sounded like a modern language, if only some backwards Baltic dialect. The speaker’s articulation was flat, void of intonation, and the rhythm was like breathing. In fact, I felt that it somehow crept inside my breaths while I listened, the same way it climbed into my thoughts.
“Hey, Charlie, wake up.” Joey snapped his fingers at me. “I said, ‘What do you think the record was saying?’”
I looked at him, realizing part of me still drifted away. “I don’t know, but it sure wasn’t whispers of sweet love.”
“Maybe this is some sort of hypnosis used on prisoners during the first World War. That’d make sense, right? I mean, if you wanted to drive someone crazy, just flick this on all night long.”
“Maybe so,” I said. “It bugged me out right away.”
Joey nodded and we were quiet, each looking at the gramophone. If he were like me, Joey had to wonder at what exactly he brought home that night.
He lifted his crippled hand, looking at each finger one-by-one. “You know what else, Charlie?”
“I couldn’t guess.”
“I imagined I was flying,” he said. “Does that make sense? While that played, I felt like my body didn’t weigh anything and I lifted from the earth. I mean, I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t control it. I just drifted up into the stars.”
“Funny,” I said. “I kind of felt the same, like I was floating free in a warm bath.”
“What do you think these records are worth?”
“A trip to the city dump.”
“Get outta here! I’ve never encountered anything like this before. That’s got to account for something. You think Ray will take a look at it?”
“Maybe. Or maybe we should just scrap the thing. We seem to agree there’s something off about it.”
Joey either ignored my comment or wasn’t listening. “Ray knows antiques. Of course, this being a foreign language might throw him. I sure wish I knew what it said.”
“Aw, hell, I know a guy who’s into languages.” I said. I thought Joey was probably right about it having some sort of value. Of course, when it came down to it, the stranger an item, the more value it commands. “Real sharp fella. He’s a Hungarian that runs a book store I used to live by, about as cultured a mind as you’re going to find in these parts. I’ll bring him the player in the morning and ask what he makes of it.”
“Just bring him a couple of the albums. I’m going to listen to some of the others on my own, see what else is on here.”
“What’s he going to do with records and no player to put it on?”
“It’s 1963. Everyone’s got a record player.”
I shrugged, and Joey packed up the gramophone and his other winning baggage. We said our good-nights, and he walked out the door of my apartment. As soon as he left, the room felt a little colder, a little smaller.
1963 was half over and I felt old and slow, as if the year sped past, shooting clouds of dust at me as it blew by. I remembered that I once had a plan for life, a direction, but now I just lived for the day. Making bets and going to the auctions was always a hoot, but part of me felt that I settled for something I wasn’t meant for. Truth was, I always wanted to live in the city, but I also thought I would get a fancy job in business or law, drive a big car, and travel to Europe. I made it to the city, but I found regular work didn’t suit me. Getting chained to a desk for ten hours a day made me think of stories about men that drowned in quicksand: once they start sinking, it’s harder and harder to get out and after a certain threshold is passed-just above the naval on a full-grown man-escape is impossible. They can only scream and flounder and know death is cruel and inevitable. To me, that’s what every day at an office job was like.
I got out in time, but I also lost my dream. I might have given up and moved back to the warmer climes of my native Kentucky, if I hadn’t met Danielle. We got engaged quick, ten years ago, and then I caught her in bed with a jockey... a jockey I had bet against earlier that day at the track and who went against the odds, winning in the final lap. Within five hours, I lost my money and I lost her. I stood a foot taller than that horse-riding bastard, and when I caught them doing the wild mamba in bed I called him out and laid all my force into a crack against his jaw. He barely flinched, and then he landed an uppercut that knocked me clean out. When I woke, they both were gone. To this day, all I can figure is that he was experienced with having wronged men hit him and had trained to take punches.
Either that, or I hit like a pansy.
After Danielle, I met Gail whom I’ve come to love like no other. If not for Danielle, I would have proposed marriage to Gail long ago. As it was, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Too much pain and betrayal associated with the custom. Gail kept me rooted in reality; she worked the regular business job I couldn’t hold, she had the big car and the future. I wished someday to make an honest woman out of her, though I knew deep down she deserved better than me. I regularly expected her to cut me loose.
How many Stroh’s did I drink? I thought of Joey and Danielle and Gail and all the people from my life speaking to me from a record. And there, tiny amongst the towers of luggage and reminiscences, I faded into night’s dreams.
* * *
The next day I drove to Vic’s Books in one of the city’s historic quarters lining the Detroit River’s north bank. Vic was west of the Ambassador Bridge that connects to Canada, and every time I drove past, I thought of how many forlorn people took a quarter mile walk either way, hoping to start life over in a new country, only to find out that it’s the same troubles everywhere.
I arrived at the shop and parked in front. Vic’s Books was a small glass-faced square in the shopping district, one of many like an assemblage of bright children’s blocks laid in line.
Carrying three of Joey’s records wrapped in a pillowcase, I pushed through the front door. A small bell announced my entrance. Inside were cases of paperbacks and cloth-bound volumes crammed into every space. The musty smell of aged paper filled the room like a presence-a good presence-and I was reminded of lazy afternoons lounging in my grandfather’s study reading childhood adventures in exotic lands.
There were no other customers in the store, and I made my way through towering aisles of ancient tomes and Harlequin tales until I reached the back, where Vic sat reading the Detroit Times and smoking a frayed cigar.
“Charlie,” he said without looking up. “Been too long since you stopped by. Never too busy to read, son.”
“The pony stats don’t count.” He looked at me over the edge of gold-rimmed focals, the kind with a piece of twine that circles your head and attaches to the arms like a necklace.
“All right, I’ll buy something if that’s what you want,” I said.
“Of course that’s what I want. I run a business don’t I?”
“I said I’ll buy something.” I shrugged.
He shrugged back.
“And it’s nice to see you, too,” I added.
“Hey, I’m just giving you a hard time.”
“Same old Vic. You age, you don’t change.”
He smiled at that, and a gleam shone from the edge of one silver tooth. “I want to be mythified.”
“I have a favor to ask,” I said.
Vic folded the paper and scratched at his gray whiskers. “As long as it don’t involve money or lipstick.”
“Not sure what it involves, but probably only a few minutes of reaching back to your homeland.” I laid the records on the counter next to him.
“You want me to listen to music?”
“A pal procured these in an old traveler’s suitcase. The records are of someone chanting, real eerie stuff. And they don’t play right either, like the grooves in the wax are stretched or extended somehow. The records seem to run longer than they should, as if they won’t end.” I looked at Vic to make sure he didn’t think I was cracked. He just nodded, so I continued. “Anyway, I think it’s an Eastern European language, Baltic origins or something. Lot of ‘V’ and ‘Z’ sounds. We want to know what they’re saying in the chants and maybe if there’s some value in these. Who better to turn to than my old Hungarian pal in the antiquities market, eh?” I smiled, though maybe a bit too much.
“Sounds curious,” he replied. “But I don’t have a record player.”
I laughed inwardly, wishing Joey was there.
“I’ll pass it around to someone else I know,” Vic added. “These discs look handmade, so you never know what’s recorded on them. Probably nothing more than a family choir recital. Come back in a week-next Friday morning-and I’ll let you know what I find out.”
“Don’t think about it.” He puffed on his cigar and looked around. “Now buy something, would ya? The store don’t run on my favors.”
Not feeling any great inspiration, I picked up a couple science fiction paperbacks showing covers of green-skinned aliens and spacecraft that looked like flying dinner plates.
When I got home, I tossed the books into a box with a hundred other paperbacks I would probably never read. Besides clothes and makeup, used books were the most common item I found inside baggage. It seemed nearly everyone carried a book about mystery or adventure or advice when they traveled.
I farted around for the next few days, talked with Gail on the phone each evening, and made plans to accompany her and her boss to dinner on Tuesday at Frantillo’s. I always enjoyed chatting with Gail; the day didn’t seem properly lived if I didn’t cap it off with her spirited conversation.
Anyway, that date at Frantillo’s wasn’t until midweek, so I should have had plenty of time to prepare. Of course, Tuesday afternoon arrived sooner than expected, and I found myself scrambling at the eleventh hour to make her schedule.
Don’t be late, Gail had said. You’re always running behind, so leave early if you have to. Be here at five thirty. It’s my boss, Geoff Van Duyn, and his wife. Don’t make me look bad.
Her words rang in my head when I ran into Joey in the lobby of Les Deux Oies. I had just bought a bouquet of calla lilies for Gail from the corner vendor and was rushing back to my room to change into dinner clothes.
Joey came out of the elevator when I was about to go up. He looked peculiar somehow, messy in a way that was antithesis to his customary care in grooming: polished shoes, oiled hair, shirts pressed so tight that finding a wrinkle was like searching for fins on a pigeon. Now he was pale, and I guessed he hadn’t shaved since last I saw him.
“Joey,” I said. “You okay? You look terrible.”
“Sorry, Charlie. I didn’t know I had to impress anyone today.”
“Fair enough. Suppose I did put my foot in my mouth.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He paused, holding the elevator open for me. “Going up, or am I holding the doors ‘cause I got nothing else to do?”
Sometimes when Joey spoke, I couldn’t tell if he was wisecracking or in a pissy mood. I got the feeling today was the latter case.
“I’ve got a few minutes. Why don’t I walk with you?”
“Suit yourself.” He let the doors close and we passed through the lobby.
“Find anything new on those records?” I asked.
He seemed to flinch slightly and walked a step faster.
“I’ve been listening to them every day,” he finally said. “But I still don’t know what any of it means. They’re all the same, by the way. Every record is the same, ‘cept I’ve noticed one thing.”
We reached the glass doors that led outside to the street, and just before pushing through, he stopped. Joey glanced around as if making sure nobody could overhear him, and his voice lowered.
“After that first voice chants for awhile, a second voice joins in, repeating the words of the first voice. But the second voice is different on each album. Some are a man’s and some are a woman’s, some sound old and some young. They’re a different person joining in but, otherwise, the records are the same. That god-awful music and the creepy chant. Vkhodite. Vkhodite. Vkhodite. I never heard of such a thing.”
“Do you... ” I started to say, then stuttered, not sure how to phrase the question. “When it’s playing, do you still feel the same, like what happened in my apartment?”
He nodded, and his voice lowered even more.
“It’s strange, Charlie. Even when I’m not listening to a record, the music keeps playing in my head. It’s like it won’t turn off. But I don’t want it to turn off, either. It makes me feel good, like it’s supposed to be playing, like it’s sharing a great secret.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t play it for awhile. As you said before, it could be some sort of hypnosis. Who knows what’s it’s doing-could be rewriting your brain. Turn it off until we figure out what it is.”
“But that’s just it,” he said. “I think the records are telling me something. They want me to know. I’m not saying the music is swingin’ good times-it’s a pretty wretched sound-but it changes as you listen. It causes you to visualize things. I see a clearing in a forest that’s covered in snow. I see a faraway castle with turrets that look like Christmas tree ornaments. The records are preparing me... a new life, away from pain and fear.”
Joey’s eyes seemed to glaze over.
“That sounds pretty cracked to me,” I said.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so blunt in my response. He startled, and a dark shadow passed over his face. I wondered later if I would have nodded understanding and inquired further, Joey might have opened up a bit more. He might have told me whom he saw in his visions, what he expected, and what was told to him.
Instead, he clammed up. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s crazy talk. I’ve got to go anyway. You’re not going to follow me around all day are you?”
“I’ve got my own plans.”
“Good seeing you, Charlie.”
“We still on for Roman’s auction this Thursday?” I asked, as Joey pushed through the doors to exit.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” he replied and was gone in a blink.
My side venture with Joey took no more than fifteen minutes. But by the time I went up to my room, dressed for dinner, searched for my car keys (somehow fallen behind the wood locker of a ventriloquist dummy), returned back downstairs, and drove across the city to meet Gail, I was mortified to see that time had skipped forward in a hurry. My watch read five forty-five.
The parking lot at Frantillo’s was filled, so I went around the corner to find a space for my car. I fast-walked back to the restaurant feeling every second ticking away in my head. Frantillo’s was a small joint, low-roofed and snazzy with big windows covered by thick crimson blinds. The afternoon sun still hung high, and it played funny tricks in the reflections of the glass. I imagined Gail looking out at me from behind the curtains in disappointment.
Inside, the maître d’ barely looked up before asking if I had a reservation. I’m sure he thought I was riff-raff. He smelled of cheap aftershave and French cheese.
“I’m expected,” I said. I walked past, and he shook his head as if I were lying.
The bar area was packed with young businessmen decked out in wide-lapel suits and shoes so shiny it was like walking past a row of mirrors. Everyone in there could have been part of a collection of animatrons; they looked the same, laughed the same, talked about the same topics. Business meetings, business clients, business opportunities. It was a world I despised. Maybe I loathed it because I had once tried to fit in, only to flounder helplessly instead. Failure rears resentment.
I don’t know why I let it bother me; I was as happy with life as I deserved and should only wish the same for everyone else. I passed into the dining room which was arranged in a maze of high-backed booths allowing privacy to each party from surrounding patrons. The lighting was dim, and Italian ballads drifted over muted conversations. I zigzagged through until I found Gail. She sat by herself at a table with three half-drunk glasses of red wine.
“Hi.” I waved. “Sorry I’m late, dear. Only by fifteen minutes this time.”
“Try twenty.” She got up to meet me, wearing a tight shirtwaist dress with big black buttons that looked ready to pop off. Though she was a few years older than me, Gail could doll herself up to look half her age. She was a full-sized woman with curves like a pair of necking swans.
“Twenty’s not so bad.” I leaned in for a smooch.
She pulled away. “Twenty today, thirty yesterday, an hour tomorrow. When are you going to win a working clock at one of your auctions?”
“Brought you something,” I said and handed her the calla lilies I’d been carrying since the apartments. “Won’t you feel bad for scolding when I explain how I scoured the florists of Detroit, handpicking only the finest of lilies for your pleasure?”
“I might if it were the truth,” she said.
Gail accepted the flowers, and my charm won over her scowl. She smiled, and we kissed.
“Did I miss much?” I asked.
“Geoff’s mingling at the bar. He saw some buddies from a club-either polo or yachting or men of inherited fortune-and went over to show off his wife. She’s nineteen years younger than him, you know. Took their second honeymoon last month.”
I rolled my eyes. “I sure fit in.”
“You can try to make me look good. He’s heading up store expansion in the New England markets and I’m in the running for a promotion. A woman with a man does better climbing the corporate ladder than a woman without. You know how much trouble we can get into if left to our own devices.” She pinched the inside of my thigh and winked.
I startled, and a tiny squeal slipped out. “You jezebel!” I pinched her back.
She never pressured me, but I knew a married woman did better yet than any unmarried one, regardless if she was in a relationship. Gail wore a small diamond ring on her wedding finger that I gave her some years back. It wasn’t an engagement ring or even a promise ring, just something I won inside a satchel at a baggage auction and gifted her to make-up after an argument. But it served a purpose also, as long as nobody asked too many in-depth questions.
“So how are you?” she asked. “Busy day in the junk trade?”
“I made a few dollars.”
“Enough to take me to dinner next week? Just you and me, maybe a night of dancing at Morton’s Jazz Club?”
“I think that could be arranged.”
She ran a finger along the back of my hand. “We don’t get out enough, Charlie. It’s always nice just to be with you.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Maybe we can get together this weekend.”
Gail nodded as Geoff Van Duyn and his wife returned to the table.
I sighed inwardly. Van Duyn looked as if every businessman I had passed at the bar were rolled up into one mega-agency man. Though I’d never met him, I knew much about Van Duyn through conversations with Gail in which she’d recite each workday’s highs and lows, her projects and aspirations and office gossip. I knew he liked theater but not sporting events, yachts but not planes, stocks but not bonds. Van Duyn liked his coffee black, his ties red, and his wives blonde.
Gail worked in the corporate office for Rockwell’s department stores, a chain of high-end retailers that carried everything a modern family could want, from clothes to bedding to appliances to toys. She managed procurement for designer women’s clothes, some of it pretty hoity-toity fashion. I needled her whenever I won a piece of luggage with Rockwell’s dresses tucked inside; everything became “second-hand” eventually. I purchased things for pennies of what she sold on the racks.
Van Duyn was Vice President of purchasing. He was her boss and, as such, determined her future with the company.
Introductions were made, and he started right in on me.
“You a businessman, Charlie?”
“No kidding. A self-made man?”
“A man still in the making,” I said.
He guffawed like a cat choking up a hairball. “Funny stuff.” He turned to Gail. “You didn’t tell me he had a sense of humor.”
“That’s Charlie,” she said, and I could sense the nervousness in her voice.
“So what is it you do?” Van Duyn asked.
“I’m involved in a few different ventures. I write editorials and buy and sell collectibles.”
“Sounds like hobbies, not an occupation.”
“I control my own destiny,” I said, cringing at the slip of cliché.
“I’ll give you that,” he replied. “But why knock yourself out, scrambling for pennies? Get a real job, I say, so you have security and can share life’s luxuries with Gail.”
“Let me tell you, Geoff,” I said. “A man is successful if he lives every day with the ability to do what he wants.”
Van Duyn nodded, expecting me to continue. I didn’t have any more to say on the subject, but they were all looking at me and the silence grew awkward fast. I grasped for something else to add that would seem important.
“Our time on Earth is limited, and there’s no point wasting it living someone else’s life. Every man’s vision of triumph is different, and the truest measure is how honest you are with yourself. Pursue your passion, and success will follow.”
What I said sounded so sincere and knowledgeable I wished I’d written it down for future use, though I didn’t think I could repeat it again with a straight face. It was probably just recollection of some jumbled phrases from old management pep-talks, back when I was in business. But the others nodded and agreed, commenting on the wisdom I’d shared. Van Duyn said if I ever wanted to try my hand in the department store business, he’d have a job for me. A waiter arrived to take our order, and afterwards the conversation changed to lighter topics.
I can’t say the rest of the evening was pleasant, but it was more bearable than I’d expected.
* * *
The next couple days passed as if they didn’t exist. I felt antsy like there was something I was supposed to do, or else I was missing an affair, the way a celebration occurs and you show up at two in the morning after it’s ended. By the time you arrive, everyone is passed-out drunk, and the music’s turned off, and the pink streamers hanging off light fixtures just look limp and spent. During that time I penned some editorials and nursed a steady, dull ache in my head. I sold some collectible spoons to a silver dealer and wrote a monthly letter to my folks back home. Each night I dreamt of people sitting around a campfire in the snow, like a pow-wow. Around them spread a forest, and I wondered if it was the same snowy forest that Joey said he dreamt of. The people sitting around the campfire had empty faces, just the shell of an egg sitting on top of a torso, and they disappeared into the night one-by-one.
By the time Thursday afternoon arrived, I was bored and desperate for some action. I’d been waiting for today’s baggage auction for a long time; I hadn’t been to an auction or race in a week, as all the tracks were closed for the summer heat and most other “venues of chance” were on hiatus. I ironed my pants and dialed Joey at the same time, holding the handset in the crook of my neck while steam drifted up my face.
He picked up after nine rings.
“Hey, it’s me, Charlie. You ready? Roman’s is opening in half an hour. Want me to meet at your room?”
“Charlie...?” His voice drifted, as if my name were a question or a fleeting memory from something long ago.
“Yeah, from upstairs. You drinkin’ already?”
There was a pause between us, and in that lack of conversation I heard dim voices in the background, muffled by distant music, but words repeating, chanting.
“Hey, pal,” he said slowly. “I’m not feeling up to snuff today. Why don’t you go on without me.”
“Geez, they’re liquidating baggage from the Lincolnwood Hyatt today. The Lincolnwood! Kim Novak roosted there last month, vacationing from Hollywood. I heard the porter lost one of her satchels. Who knows what might turn up today.”
“Make a bid for me. I’m gonna take it easy.”
“You want me to pick up some soup for you on the way back?”
“No, no, pal, it’s okay. I’m just gonna sleep it off.”
I shrugged, as if he could see me through the phone line. “Okay, hope you feel better tomorrow.”
“Thanks,” he replied. “We’ll be fine.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” I asked, but the line went dead as he hung up.
I never knew Joey to call off plans due to sickness. Catching the sniffles wasn’t reason enough to skip playing the auctions. Of course, age was catching up to us, and the weather extremes didn’t help. As of late, I also had felt sluggish, my mind a bit muddled. Maybe there was a bug going around the hotel. Now that I thought about it, that wouldn’t surprise me at all. Who knew what kind of foul things died in the ducts, their carcasses left rotting so the gases of death bubbled out from the hissing vents into our rooms. Les Deux Oies wasn’t exactly a sanctuary of sanitation; I’d seen mold in the halls and roaches scurrying into ever-widening cracks. Not a lot, mind you, but their occasional appearances were just enough to remind you that things causing the willies existed all around and there wasn’t much you could do about it. I had spoken to the building’s superintendent, Horace Wetzel, about the declining condition, but he just nodded and said he’d check it out, all the while giving me that look: if you don’t like it, you can go somewhere else.
So I did, at least for the evening. I went to Roman’s.
By the time I arrived, the auction house was filled with gamblers, investors, goons, and degenerates. It reminded me of a scene from an old James Cagney mobster movie. Groups of men dressed in shiny suits stood around, their eyes hidden in the shadows of low-slung fedoras, and they all turned to me as I walked through the front entrance.
“Charlie, over here,” Ray Galler called out. He stood with a couple of bespectacled men who were built skinny and narrow-faced like accountants. “This is John A. and John T.” He tilted his head at me. “Johns, this is Charlie Stewart.”
“Did you hear Kim Novak’s satchel is supposed to be here?” one of the Johns asked.
“Knew since it went missing,” I replied with a wink.
“This is the Johns’ first time at the auctions. I’m training them to run my stores, and I told them you’re one of the smartest bidders to watch,” Ray said. He looked past me. “Where’s Joey?”
“Took a sick day. Too much sun.”
“Huh. Not like him to miss out on something like the Lincolnwood.”
“Don’t I know it, but what can you do if health deals you a bum hand for the day? Take it and reshuffle tomorrow.”
“One less bidder sounds fine by me,” the other John said.
I was going to snap something back, real witty, too, but the auctioneer started in on his spiel.
...continued in full book...
Copyright © 2013 by Eric J. Guignard