When the bus door swings open, a man with a blue umbrella steps inside, followed by his companion, a man in a black toggle rain jacket. Behind them both is a slightly shorter, slightly stouter, slightly balder, and considerably wetter man.
"Jesus, what the hell was that all about?" asks the man in the toggle jacket.
The man with the blue umbrella takes a seat, shaking water on the bus floor. "I have no idea. That crazy old crone came out of nowhere and started screaming."
"What was that noise she was making?"
"You got me. It sounded like gibberish. And the way she looked at me -- it was freakin' scary."
The slightly shorter, stouter, very wet man behind them clears his throat. "Pardon me, gentlemen. I witnessed the entire incident, including some portions you did not observe." The man with the umbrella and the man in the toggle jacket turn their heads in unison.
"What do you mean, Warren?" asks the man with the umbrella.
"That was not a crazy old crone," says Warren. "That was the witch Madame Vladescu. For over forty years she's been the proprietress of Madame Vladescu's Shoppe of Magik. And that was not gibberish she was speaking. It was the dreaded Unspeakable Transylvanian Curse."
The man with the umbrella smiles, then grimaces, then blanches. "The what?" he says trying to regain his smile. There is a small tremble in his voice.
"Madame Vladescu was caught in the unexpected downpour. She tried several times unsuccessfully to get your attention, but you were busy expounding on your favorite celebrity's proficiency in the art of ballroom dancing. Madame was merely seeking shelter under your umbrella. After what she considered a series of disrespectful rebuffs, she responded by casting a curse upon you.
"Warren, I ... I had no idea. But how do you know ... ?"
"If you would be so kind as to switch places and allow me to sit down, I will explain my familiarity with Transylvanian magic, and perhaps convince you how precarious your situation is."
* * *
As a teen, (says Warren) I possessed a mind that was brilliant beyond my years. Unlike my nominal peers who spent their idle hours testing their parental limits in the shrubbery of our local park, I looked for ways to satisfy my unquenchable thirst for knowledge. My greatest pleasure was to bicycle downtown to a certain rare and used bookstore and browse for hours through recondite tomes.
One grey and dreary afternoon, immersed in a particularly and fascinating treatise, I lost all track of time. By the time the exasperated shopkeeper locked the door behind me, a drizzle was falling from the sky. I prudently tucked my weekly purchase under my shirt, but not so prudently decided to take an unfamiliar short cut home. I soon became disoriented in a honeycomb of darkened one-way streets. A misguided hunch brought me to an alley where a forlorn wind whistled through gaping windows of abandoned tenements.
There, in the middle of the block, like a lone living cell in a decaying body, was Madame Vladescu's Shoppe of Magik. It was not only the rumble of approaching thunder that made me bring my bicycle to a halt under her tattered awning. Nor was it the fact I had just purchased a well-worn copy of Black Magic and Other Grim Folklore of Transylvania that seized my attention. It was a small sign in the lighted window: INFLAME HER PASSION WITH JOHN THE CONQUEROO LOVE CHARM.
You see, I was in those days in the grip of a feverish, unrequited love for a certain pigtailed young lady named Agatha Winfelder. She sat in front of me in biology class; her strawberry blonde braids dangling across the back of her chair. Being a youth through whom the red corpuscles raged as fiercely as any other, I had developed a vivid fantasy life involving the two of us that startled even me. Unfortunately Agatha did not return my advances.
I had done everything a youth could do to win her affections. I found her well-chewed pencil on the floor and left it on her desk while her attention was directed elsewhere. I confided my infatuation to my closest male comrades. I even went so far as to write her name in large letters on my three-ring binder. None of these things seemed to have helped advance my wooing. I was stymied.
Could I be blamed for turning to the occult?
That stormy night when I pushed open the door of Madame Vladescu's Shoppe of Magik, the proprietress did not look up from the large puce crystal that sat in front of her on the back counter. Even then she appeared to be a woman of great age, her eyes nearly covered by a patched shawl, her neck swaddled in gold. Over her left shoulder was draped the fur of some unfortunate creature into whose eye sockets a taxidermist with a flair for the dramatic had placed blood-red rubies.
Being a young man of courage and determination, I swallowed the lump rising in my throat and asked, "Would you be so kind as to tell me where I might find your John the Conqueroos?"
She did not raise her head, but merely indicated a direction with a long finger terminating in a stiletto of a nail. I followed her direction to a draped wooden box on a rickety table. Removing the cover I saw what appeared to be a coiled mass of petrified fetal rodents. They were in fact, a collection of grotesque roots. But far more grotesque to me was the small sign crudely taped to the box: $20. EACH.
I did not have twenty dollars. Truth be told I barely had twenty cents, having spent my little all at the bookstore, "Put the thought out of your mind, Warren," whispered the stern voice of my conscience. "Take your hand away. No, don't pick one up. What are you doing? Are you crazy?"
But I was crazy. Crazy with love for Agatha Winfelder. Just the feeling of the gnarled texture of the talisman filled me with a current of vigor I had never before known. I went to slip it into my pants pocket, stealing in addition a quick glance in the direction of the Madame. It was during that second, that mere fraction of a second, that a burst of lightning shattered the darkness of the store. In its glare, time froze, revealing in horrific detail both the act of my theft and the fearsome countenance of Madame Vladescu, her glowing green eyes fixed upon me.
"Schtttopp!" she screamed. There was something in her voice -- that hideous voice -- that momentarily left me unable to move my limbs.
But the power of the talisman had given me access to a hitherto untapped source of inner strength. Once the charm contacted against my hip, I felt energy rise inside my P.F. Flyers. I bounded toward the door.
"Bistrita brasov cluj napoca!" cackled the voice behind me. "Medias sebes!" I could feel the hot breath of the sorceress even though twenty feet separated her lips from my ear. "Sibiu sighisoara!" I nearly dislodged the doorknob as I flung myself into the tempest of the night and on my trusty two-wheeled steed.
How I made it home I have no recollection. Nevertheless I arrived, drenched to my skin and, after consuming two warm bowls of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti-Os, went straight to my room. I took the Conqueroo, no worse for the journey, and tucked it safely in the top drawer of my dresser.
I felt an uncharacteristic rush of manly victory. Having been blessed with gifts of the mind rather than the flesh, I had never experienced the satisfaction of scoring a field goal, hitting a home run, or punching a weaker boy in the face. I had mustered the fortitude to attempt and achieve something bold, daring, and possibly a minor felony. I preened myself in the dresser mirror, exquisitely virile, powerful, and invulnerable.
Or was I?
No matter how strongly I tried to force the strange words of Madame Vladescu from my consciousness, they continued to insinuate their way back. I showered. I put on my pajamas. I climbed into bed, but I could not stop the cackly voice from echoing in my mind.
After an hour of tossing and another of turning, I switched on the light and began to peruse my newly purchased copy of Black Magic and Other Grim Folklore of Transylvania. I found it on page 427, under the disturbing listing: Catastrophically Evil Curses. "Bistrita brasov cluj napoca. Medias sebes. Sibiu sighisoara "-- thus are the words of the Unspeakable Transylvanian Curse, bringing gruesome consequences upon the heads of its wretched victims. (See also: 'Horrific Fates' p.313 and "Worst Things You Can Possibly Imagine' p.666)"
I laughed aloud at the ignorance of superstitious peasantry who could possibly have fallen for such obvious tripe in the 17th century. I was a post-war American youth living in a middle-class suburb, proud of his intellectual heritage. I chucked the book into a pile of dirty clothes, leapt out of bed, and yanked open my dresser drawer. There was John the Conqueroo in all his moribund splendor, ready to sweep Agatha Winfelder off her patent-leather shoes. There was the fate of my love life, the attainment of my romantic dreams, the achievement of my manhood. What were a few foreign words uttered by an angry shopkeeper compared to the firm, throbbing resolve I felt coursing through my veins?
When the first rays of dawn slipped between my venetian blinds, I was ready to conquer, if not the world, at least the heart of Agatha Winfelder. After a thorough practice shave and, to my mother's surprise, a breakfast of oysters, I mounted my bike, John the Conqueroo emanating his power from the left breast pocket of my jacket.
I reached the park in record time. Agatha was on a bench near the bushes, chattering with her clutch of giggling females. I strode toward them, each step a better imitation of John Wayne than the last.
"Oh, hello, Warren," she said. There was a strange light in her eyes. "Funny, we were just talking about you." A whisper of poorly suppressed laughter rippled through our audience.
"Hello, Agatha." I touched my breast pocket for a quick reinforcement of courage. "There's ... there's something I want to say to you."
"Cool. There's something I want to say to you, too, Warren."
"You do? I mean, there is?"
"Yeah, why don't we just step over here?"
I wasn't sure what happened next. She stood, took a step toward me, I took a step back, she put out her hands, and the next thing I knew we were both behind the shrubbery on our knees. "Kiss me, Warren," she said.
"But Agatha ... "
"You must know how hot you are, Warren. Can you blame a poor girl for falling under your spell?"
Whether or not these words preceded an escape of girlish laughter from the bench out of sight, I will never know. All I remember is that Agatha lunged at me like a tigress upon a piece of flank steak. I retreated, but a phalanx of boxwood branches held me fast.
"Kiss me, you big strong hunk of man."
"Ah ... ah ... ah." I tried to speak, to reason with her if possible, and if not, to summon help, but no words would come. My jaw muscles were paralyzed. She came closer. I could smell the Dentyne on her breath. "Ah..ah..ah." It was as if I had been made mute.
Then it hit me.
It was the Curse -- and I, its victim who could not speak. That was why it was called Unspeakable. I was flooded with an unbearable vision of a lifetime unable to talk, unable to share my intellectual gifts with the world.
I broke free of Agatha's surprisingly strong clasp and plunged through the prison of underbrush. Scratched, frantic, but unstoppable, I raced back to my bike. In a trice I traced my path back to Madame Vladescu's Shoppe of Magik. The witch was exactly were she had been the previous night, staring into her magic sphere. "Here you are, miserable woman," I cried from the door. "Take back your wretched talisman!" I threw it at her. She reached up and caught the damnable object without taking her eye from the crystal.
I hardly noticed her acrobatics. I was too relieved to have recovered my voice. The curse had been lifted.
* * *
"Wow," says the man in the black toggle rain jacket. "That's some story."
The man with the blue umbrella shakes his head, takes a deep breath, and releases it audibly. "Wh..wh ... " he begins.
"Oh, dear," says Warren. "I'm afraid the curse is beginning to work. There's only one way to lift it -- you must give your umbrella to Madame Vladescu. Do you know where to find her? No, don't try to speak. It will only make matters worse. Here, this is my stop. Give the umbrella to me and I'll make sure she gets it. Don't worry. It will stop raining soon. I'm fairly certain."