64. A Dark Room, A Flame

Once more the tangletown streets, the whiff of greenbacks, the thick oak door, the racket when the knocker fell. And then, Jen. Hopeful. Big-eyed. Dressed again in tights that could have been sprayed on, but that’s what the gals wear these days. Not gals of Jen’s age, generally speaking, though so few have kept themselves up to the same extent.

“Charles,” she said. “I’ve been waiting.”

“Leo. He’s sleeping?”

“He’s up but he’ll be down. Not much steam there.”

More than she knew.

Leo looked like he had been dumped on the sofa from an airplane. He wore that delirious grin — mask of a madman! — though in fairness to him it was just the bum deal of old age. The sagging ears and nose, the hang of the jowls, the bugged out eyes and thin lips, all of it together makes a man of Leo’s age look nuts. He deserved something better. We all do.

“Leo,” I said.

“We met?” he replied.

“A time or two.”

Jen rolled her eyes.

I should have asked Duke how long she had. Everyone will be dead some day, no surprise there. But that certainty seems — what’s the word here? Odd? Contradictory? Oppositional? — no way to put this delicately! — that certainty seems bizarrely opposed to the messy, panting reality of having been inside the living body of another, to have felt the pulse and quiver and then to understand that she will be a — oh, why mince words?! — a lifeless slab of meat sooner or later. Sooner, in Jen’s case. Sooner than Leo at any rate.

“I wonder. If our guest would care for a drink?” Leo said. “I myself, this hour of the day, I am not opposed. What time is it, dear?”

“Eleven thirty.”

“Ah. This hour of the day. I do not say no to blackberry brandy. And you, sir?”

“Eleven thirty. That’s a …”

“Perfect time for a small glass,” said Jen.

“Exactly,” I said.

She took a bottle and three glasses from the sideboard. She filled Leo’s glass and handed it to him.

“You’re not going to kill him off that way,” I said quietly.

“Put him back to sleep at least,” she whispered.

Leo held the glass up to the light. He nodded appreciatively and emptied it. “The warmth,” he said. “That’s what…” He stopped and stared at me. “Who are you?”

“Charles,” said Jen. “It’s Charles.”

“The warmth, Charles. It reminds you. You have a soul. The glow. Of course it’s only alcohol. Still. I’m talking about a dark room, a dark room and then this flame. This burning. It suggests, Charles. It suggests the eter…”

The glass slipped out of Leo’s fingers. It took a while for his eyes to close. For a moment I thought that Duke had it wrong. Jen and I held our breath, waiting. Then Leo gasped, snorted and began, gently, to snore.

“You want to move him to his bed?” I asked.

“Best to leave him. He can sleep anywhere.”

She moved in closer to me.

“What did you find out?”

“You want to go to another room?”

“Doesn’t matter. He barely understands when he’s awake. But if it makes you more comfortable.”

“It would.”

“Is this good news or bad?” She took hold of my elbow and steered me toward the library again.

“It’s complicated,” I said.

Tomorrow: You can’t get enough help

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