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July 15, 2024

Time Traveler 08

By Sand Pilarski

Monday passed, classes and paperwork, and no flowers appeared at the door to my office. Old fool, I chastised myself, echoing the words I'd heard applied to Moersgard at Fatzer's boring barbecue. Tuesday was as boring as the Sunday party, and even a young woman's storming out of class because of a comparison between baptizing of the dead and appeasement of ancestors failed to engage my enthusiasm. By Wednesday I was so disgusted with my mood that I accepted Radigan's weekly invitation to have lunch with him rather than go to the gym. We went downtown again, with me reminding him that it was my turn to pick up the tab. "In my day, the gentleman always picked up the tab," he told me with a bit of a miff.

"In your day, men thought wearing bow ties was a good idea," I told him sarcastically.

He looked at me and fingered his bow tie. "Are you suggesting that I update my wardrobe?"

"Sure, Neil. Take a cue from our students. Shave your head and get about a hundred tatoos, and wear leather with the arms cut out." I grinned at him. I'd decided that if he wanted my company, he'd have to put up with me.

"Your humor continues to elude me," said Radigan. "I can only hope that with repeated exposure, I may one day -- 'get it.'"

We were drawing near to the area where I had last seen Valentine Teshenko playing his violin. As we walked closer, I could hear his music. Not too many listeners in the middle of the week, but most of them were sitting on the walls of nearby street bistros and planters, plainly settled in for the full set. I watched him as we walked by, ready to wave hello; he looked up, his eyes widening as he saw me, and then he turned away, still playing, so that all I could see was his back.

Well, that was about as happy as shit in a blender. Wrenching my attention back to what was in front of me, I set my resolve in steel to mind my own damn business and forget about him. I spent the lunch hour focusing on parrying Radigan's pathetic attempts to profess his attraction to me, and finished up with the conclusion that if Radigan was what passed for 'my speed', I'd rather go out and buy a three-wheeled bicycle.

"There is no concept of Heaven unless there is a fear of Hell," I intoned to the class. "Duality is at the core of all eschatological beliefs."

Like Yin and Yang, someone called out, the class well in tune by now with my method of teaching. Good karma and bad karma! Warm and cold! said someone, like in Scandinavian myths. What about male and female, said a young man, you got to have men to offset Hell.

"Good thinking, Mr. Smarts. Get up here and help me write down ideas on the board."

These are the good classes, I thought, when the students thumb madly through Eliade's Essential Sacred Writings and shout Light instead of Darkness! Life instead of Death! A chance to do it all over again if you hate your life!

Hey, the solid gold student said, what about people who already have it all?

Well, I asked, if a rich and important and happy person was dying, what would they wish for?

To keep living, said another student.

To be able to have all their money and keep living, said another.

Where have you all seen that happening? I asked the class.

MUMMIES! King Tut! Pyramids! Are we going to talk about pyramids and stuff?

Yes, I told them, lots of stuff. Read Eliade, Egyptian Concepts of Death. I'll have handouts ready as well.

The bell rang and another Thursday was done.

I headed back to my office, content with the day's classes, but feeling worn and weary, glad that I hadn't assigned more than reading on Wednesday so that I could just do Friday morning classes and sleep all the rest of the day. Hell, maybe I'd go on a bender. Call up KC and suggest we take the window covering store's name as advice: Three Day Blinds.

When I thumped my briefcase onto my desk the phone was already ringing. I hate phones. "Renoir, can I help you?"

Margaret Wills said nervously, "Augusta, can I talk with you down here?"

God damn it, if she was saying that she was 'down' while I was 'up', whatever she had to say was going to be trouble. Had Fatzer decided I hadn't talked to his wife long enough at his party on Sunday?

I walked down the hall to his office. The snippy little turd wasn't in, but Margaret was white and twitchy. "I am so sorry, Augusta. This came in for you on Friday. I thought you had just gone out for lunch, but then you never did come back, and I had it tucked in between my monitor and the printer and with the sinus headache I had Monday I just simply forgot it until just now."

I took an envelope from her and turned it over. The neat and familiar handwriting said, "To: Dr. Augusta Renoir."

I looked at Margaret with a sudden fury. "When did you say this arrived?"

"Friday, late afternoon. I'm sorry, Augusta. Was it very important?" Her face reflected a desire to know that the envelope merely contained notice of the next oil change of my car.

I tore open the envelope, shaking like a person whose blood sugar has just left the state. On a piece of notebook paper was written: "You disappeared like the fog does in the sun. Did I say something else that upset you? Please give me a call at 771-2267. Don't worry, if I don't hear from you, I'll leave you alone from now on. -- V."

"Augusta? You look so pale! Was it bad news?"

"Bad news? Yeah, Margaret, you may have just ruined my life. Thanks for remembering this before I retired, though."

I dialed the number from my office, but got only an answering machine. For a second I thought I would stammer some explanation, but hung up instead. Gods, he'd turned his back on me the day before, thinking I'd been snubbing him. I couldn't just leave some lame message on his machine. "Sorry, man, the dog ate your correspondence."

I caught the bus home and tried his number again. No answer. Every hour on the hour I tried his phone until ten. No answer. Out with a woman? At a bar? Suicide? Car wreck? Mugged? Seduced?

I could not have told you what classes were about that Friday morning. When they were done, I closed up my office, marched down pointedly to Margaret Wills' desk and told her I was going home for the weekend, put any correspondence to me under my door and in the event of any, call me at home and let me know it was under my door.

Valentine was still playing when I arrived at 'his' spot on the wide sidewalks of downtown; the Friday fans were spread around him in a large circle and I didn't even try to nudge my way to the front rows. I sat on the edge of a planter and waited, thinking of how exquisite the music would have been last Sunday as the sun went down.

I heard his voice say, "Thank you! Thank you!" when the playing stopped, and I tried to compose my face so that I had a pleasant smile. It didn't work. I know I just looked tired and unhappy when the people left and he saw me, and once again turned away.

By the time the last people had stuffed money in the can for the homeless, he had his violin wiped down and stowed away in its case, and had not looked at me at all.

I pulled the note out of my inside jacket pocket, rattled it, and said, "I didn't receive this until yesterday at five, and got no answer on the number all last evening."

He still didn't look at me. He stared down the street.

"I'm sorry that the department secretary is ... less than efficient. I'm sorry that I misunderstood last week. You didn't say anything about me sticking around while we were at lunch, so I just didn't want to ... hmmm ... get in your way?"

"Get in my way?" he sputtered. "What do you mean 'get in my way' when I invited you to hear me play?"

My turn to look away. "I didn't understand. I don't understand. I came here to try to understand."

I watched him in peripheral vision as he stood for a few seconds looking up at the fog, and then came toward me and took the note he'd left at my office out of my hands. He crumpled it, but before he could toss it in the trash can tied to a tree, I tried to grab it. "That's mine, you sent it to me!"

He looked down at me, his dark eyes searching my face. How did he interpret my blush? He had the balled paper between his hands; still watching me, he handed it to me with his right hand.

"It had a phone number I wanted," I said.

"When you left while I was playing, it was like you feel, like you might feel if you were in the middle of a lecture, and someone you were really starting to like yawned and got up and walked out to go have a smoke." He picked up the violin case and brushed a leaf from the side of it.

"I honestly didn't know whether or not you wanted me to stay." Watching his graceful hands moving across the leather of the case, I still didn't know. "I'm sorry. But I didn't leave because I was bored, and I don't smoke."

"Still hurt," he said, and looked up at the sycamores that rose above the sidewalk and street. "Then I thought I screwed up, and left you the note. And then I just started to get insulted and angry."

Finally, something I could understand. I nodded. "All that's left is disbelief and acceptance." Now I could look at him.

He looked back down at me. "What?"

"Stages of grief in the face of loss. Usually associated with death, but they come along with 'most every kind of loss. Sadness, attempts to change the circumstances, anger, disbelief, and acceptance. Not necessarily occurring in that order, or only once. I think I was doing a little of that myself this past week."

Valentine snorted with a little gust of a laugh. "And just where did you hear that, or are you making it up?"

"I teach about the eschatologies of various religions, and that would include death, and grief. You had to have had some of that in your required psych classes."

"I probably slept through them or got up and went outside to smoke," he said dryly. He took a deep breath and let it out in a gusty sigh. "Well, Dr. Renoir, I don't know about you, but I can't believe we're having this conversation on the street."

My heart thumped with hope. "Then do we just accept what a screwed-up week it was and go on from here?"

"Then if we've done the Death thing, going on from here is supposed to be Heaven, right?" he asked, trying for cockiness but not quite succeeding. I had the upper hand in a conversation like this.

"That depends." I paused long enough to make him look at me squarely, and looked into his eyes as though probing his soul. "Have you been a good musician, or a bad musician?"

He looked away quickly, clearing his throat, blushing. He shook a finger at me, refusing to face me. "You need to wear sunglasses." But then he was inclined to sneak another look. This time I gave him the widest, mildest gaze I could muster so that he couldn't miss how blue my eyes were. He wiped at his moustache with his hand and shook his head. "You're a bad, bad woman. I think you're going to give me Hell no matter how good I am. I'll just think I'm in Heaven."

Serious now, I said, "I guess I'd settle for something even in between."

Over lunch, we tried to be careful about our words and questions. "Please call me Augusta instead of 'Doc.'" To which he bowed his head and answered, "If you'll call me Valentine instead of 'Mr. Teshenko.'" I said his name and we both blushed.

"I don't want to be nosy, but I'm curious. How is it that a lady so lovely isn't married? Or I guess what I'm asking is, are you?"

"I was, a long time ago. The relationship turned abusive, and I left." I felt the expressions draining from my face just remembering that much, returning to the stillness that was my camouflage, my hiding place.

"Jeeze, Augusta, I'm sorry. No wonder you're so --" he searched for a word, couldn't think of one, and turned red with embarrassment.

I raised my eyebrows at him and waited.

"You remind me of a wolf in the forest. You're spectacular and scary, then you just disappear like a ghost. Then reappear in time to grab me by the heart and growl in my face." He was still blushing. "You're like the wolves -- you don't trust humans."

Not a particularly flattering portrait. Yet the fact was, I admired wolves for those qualities, and identified with them He was a pretty perceptive young man. "For a time, I was somebody's dog, jerked around wearing somebody's collar," I said. "I never will be again." His face had paled, his eyes showing concern. "I was one of the lucky ones. I got out before I had any broken bones or missing teeth. Disappearing like a ghost was how I escaped."

We were quiet for a while, waiting for the check.

"Will you listen to me play this afternoon?" he asked, "and not take off into the forest?" "I will listen to you play, until you are done playing or you break all the strings of your violin. However, now that we've established that I'm a wolf, I shouldn't have to warn you that I will howl if you play off-key."

He didn't play for more than about twenty minutes that afternoon before a skinny boy showed up with a battered violin case and stood before Valentine until he was done with his piece. The boy asked if he could join Valentine in playing, to which question Valentine enthusiastically agreed. He pulled some curled and crunched sheet music out of his violin case and set it on the wall of a nearby planter, not having a music stand. They played through the music together, Valentine's greater ability obvious. And again. Some people left. Others came to listen. Then the boy played the same music, with more confidence, and Valentine played a counterpoint of notes around the theme, weaving an exquisite duet. When they finished, the listeners burst into applause, and the boy colored red with delight. I wiped a couple tears from my eyes; this was what Valentine was playing for.

He was grinning like a happy fox as he put his violin in the case, and I stretched myself as happily before I walked over and offered him my right hand. "Good job, Teacher," I said.

He held onto my hand after the shake, and I began to run a fever. "Augusta, what time are you done with work on Monday?"

Monday? "About five-ish. I try to be available to students until then."

"Would you give me a call when you're free? I think I'd like to talk to you over a glass of wine or dinner, are you interested?"

"Yes, I am." I watched his somewhat wistful expression as he looked at my hair, which was already starting to fluff and tangle with the humidity as the fog began to take over the climate. "I take it you have commitments tonight?" I asked, my throat unaccountably constricting.

"A secret mission," he said. "Back in Concord, and then San Francisco. Maybe some day I can tell you about it."

"Okay. Well, have fun being the new Bond. I ... will ... talk to you Monday, then, provided no mad scientists set on subjugating the world have imprisoned you." I started to pull away to leave.

"Augusta," Valentine said, holding my hand. "Trust me." He brought my hand to his lips, watching my eyes, and kissed my fingers, his moustache tickling my knuckles. Then he released me, and I walked away, hands in pockets checking for his phone number, drifting like a ghost into the forest of tourists and shoppers, feeling very wild and fearful.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-09-05
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