She saw the man in the cyan-blue suit opening the wrought iron gate and stepping into the front yard. Her hand lost its grip and she dropped the dust rag onto the window sill as her mind rushed to assess the man’s possible target. He must be heading for the tenants’ side entrance. She managed to push the suited silhouette out of her mind though, and went back to work.
Aproned in red, a kerchief to match covering her freshly coifed hair, Fleur went on tidying the front room, the safer of the two they had, too far for eavesdropping, farther from the other two families sharing their old apartment. She looked up from the side table she was dusting and met the dark eyes of the Holy Mother. Today of all days, keep him away from us.
It was Saturday, canasta day.
Fleur dragged the card table to the middle of the room and was nervously brushing its green felt top, when the doorbell rang. Staring at the specks of dust stirred up by the brush and gathered by the sun beam as it crossed the room and settled at the foot of the commode, she hesitated for a moment. She passed the brush over the surface of the icon. Her free hand caught absentmindedly one end of the loosely tied scarf.
He’s here for me.
The man in the familiar blue suit, with impenetrably dark sunglasses, was standing at her door, a black attaché-case in his hand.
“Good morning, ma’am,” he did not take off his sunglasses. A wisp of a smile lit up his face for a split second, only to fade away under the dark shield of the glasses. Scarf in one hand, brush in the other, Fleur was staring at him, waiting for more to come.
“I am Comrade Prodan, from COM Pharmaceuticals.”
The man flashed a tattered cellophane-covered picture ID, less legible than the color of his suit and the sunglasses. Fleur attempted a smile but was not sure how it surfaced on her tense face.
“I would like a few minutes of your time. I’m investigating Stephen Leszchinski, who has applied to work for our company. He says you’ve known him since he was a child and can provide us with references.”
So it’s a check on Steve’s background. As if they didn’t know it better than Steve himself. They like to play this game. Fleur had testified like this, face to face with official information-gatherers in blue suits, in the morning secrecy of her front room, about neighbors and friends and children of friends. Her way was to speak well about them, to deny knowledge of any subversive activity, of associations with suspicious individuals, of mysterious visits and conversations in foreign languages. She never considered telling such importune visitors that she was too busy to see them, that they should come back later, at a more convenient time. It was understood that such references—if that’s what they wanted– had to be given, and she thought that she was skillful enough not to throw people into jail by being careless with her words. She knew she could do a better job than most. The technique she had developed was friendly chat about insignificant details–don’t offer more information than you are asked for, but surround it with human interest stories, act surprised and slightly outraged at implications of malfeasance, and above all radiate grandmotherly wisdom, even veer into a shade of dotage if need be. And she was always grateful that these visitors came when she was alone, when Alex, her husband of forty-five years, was not at home. Men are so much poorer at dissimulation.
Fleur knew Alex would not be able to hide his disgust, his anger at slanderous insinuations, his repugnance at the very thought that his mundane comments could be turned into an indictment. All these years have taught him nothing. Alex was the same principled innocent she had fallen in love with and married before the war broke out.
“Come in, comra—she couldn’t quite shape the whole word–young man.” The grandmother took off her red apron and started ascending the stairs. Their fragment of an apartment was on the second floor, and since the two rooms assigned to them after the war, when her parents’ house became a honeycomb of tenants, were at the top of what was once the main granite stairway, it became by default theirs. An elegant touch to a shabby abode.
Several steps up, she turned her face towards the man, summoning on its small gentle features and in her large blue eyes all the warmth she could muster.
“I’ve known Steve all his life. His parents are our dearest friends. I’ve gave him piano lessons when he was a child, but chemistry has been his love ever since I can remember. Once, late for his lesson, he was making mud cakes in my yard, the sheet music floating in the puddle nearby. I called Ella, his mother, and told her she had a scatterbrained scientist on her hands.”
Fleur continued the ascension and stopped one more time at the top of the stairs.
“You’ll excuse the mess. I was just beginning to tidy up the place. The Saturday ritual–dusting and sweeping and rearranging furniture and airing. Beautiful autumn day– let all that crisp leafy air come into the house.”
“I won’t be long, ma’am,” the man pulled a chair next to the card table in the middle of the room for Fleur, and another one for him. He took out a notebook and laid it on the freshly brushed felt. “So how many years have you known Steve?”
“Let’s see–he was a baby when they returned from the countryside, where they stayed during most of the war. He was born there, with a midwife, you know. Ella, his mother, was a brave woman. I myself would have been terrified without a doctor nearby, although if truth be told, there is nothing like a midwife’s gentle strong hand. The baby–he must be forty by now. Mercy, how time flies.”
He may think I’m a dotty old lady, but I know what I’m doing. Whoever went to prison, I’d like to know, just because he had been delivered without a physician in attendance? They must know he was born at the country house. They took it away after the war and turned it into the village health center.
“And you’d say you’ve seen him frequently all these years?”
“When he was a child, yes. He was my Paul’s best friend–they are the same age, you know.”
“Your son who lives in America?”
“Yes,” out loud. Why did I have to mention Paul? Why bring him into all this? It’s no news to them, but still.
“He was a good student, Steve was. Very good in science like I said. A finalist in all the national math competitions. Takes after his father.”
“His father was a young math professor at the university at the end of the war. Doctorate in Germany, a theorem called after him. Why didn’t he continue his academic career?”
You are asking me? You and your comrades sacked the best minds from the university when they refused to show allegiance to your party? That’s where Alex wouldn’t have been able to hide his anger. But you are not going to intimidate me, young man. Whom are you trying to malign?
“He’s always liked children. You see, they have four of their own. They are all grown now, of course. He’s such a gifted teacher. You should—“
“Back to Steve,” the young man’s voice turned to steel. “Is he still in touch with your son in America?”
“With Paul? Oh dear, no, both of them are so busy. Paul with his business, Steve with his work, why, with families and children and just life, busy life…”
Slow down, silly woman. They surely know that Paul and Steve have exchanged some correspondence, Christmas cards and such. They must have them all photocopied wherever they keep these things. They never even bother sealing back the envelopes.
“The occasional birthday card, no time for much else.” A quick coda, well paced, serene.
“But they were such good friends. Maybe Steve hopes to join his best friend in America.”
I wonder if Steve has applied for a passport? Jan and Ella wouldn’t tell anyone. I don’t blame them. We didn’t tell them about Paul either, not until he reached New York and asked for political asylum right there on the airport.
“America? Steve?” Fleur’s voice reached the highest pitch of incredulity, as if she had never considered the two names together. “No, not in a million years. Steve has a family, responsibilities, he has a good job. You say he’s applying for a better one. He’s too devoted to chemistry, to his country. Maybe a conference…”
The words came out fast, round and steady as soap bubbles, rising to the young man’s ears, then lingering in the quiet between them. Fleur had broken into a slight sweat. She could feel the curls on her neck beginning to flatten against her wet skin.
“Paul is doing quite well I hear. He would surely help his childhood friend.”
“Paul has a large family to support. He has three children, you know.”
What a farce–I’m telling him how many children Paul has. As if they don’t see all the pictures before we ever get them. As if they didn’t refuse us passports each time we had a new grandchild. As if they didn’t tell us to have Paul come visit us and bring the children with him if he wanted to see us. As if, had he come, they wouldn’t have taken him from the airport straight to…
“Then why is Steve taking English lessons?”
“Oh, that!” Fleur gave a big sigh of relief. “Well, you see, these days all science books are in English–”
“Don’t you miss seeing your grandchildren?” The young man looked around the room for pictures and spotted one on the bookshelves. He walked towards the picture and picked it up. The last picture she framed, with the boys by the pool, was now in the intruder’s hand.
Fleur looked up: the kind eyes of the icon were lowered to meet hers.
“We are happy to know they are healthy and well. He sends us pictures often. We have our life and they have theirs. That’s the way it ought to be.”
Fleur joined her hands and straightened her back. She was looking the young man straight in the face. Her voice was level, the words came rolling out with ease, one after the other, each in its well-known, well-rehearsed place. No shadows of regret in her blue eyes.
The young man put the picture back on the shelf. He came back to his chair, looked down at his notebook, the page as virgin as when he had placed it on the card table. He looked up. Their eyes locked, intelligent brown eyes, unable to pierce the steely blue, stopped at the entrance.
“We know your friends are coming at four for your Saturday canasta. I will join you—to kibitz for a while. I want to meet them. You’ll tell them that I am the son of an old friend of yours from high school. A surprise visit. No need to tell anything else, to any-one.” He broke the word in the middle, like a dry twig.
The man stood up. Fleur followed him. No more words. He didn’t leave any room. She couldn’t find any.
“And don’t even dream of cancelling,” he snapped with his back to her.
Facing the door just shut behind the departing man, Fleur took hold of the bannister and sat down on the last cold step. She felt the sweaty curls on the back of her head with her hand, then brought both fists in front of her mouth, and stood there, staring at the closed door.
Back in the room, the early afternoon air rushed through the widely open windows, yellow and rust leaves framed motionless, trunkless, in front of her eyes.
Fleur brought two more chairs to the table in the middle of the room.
The four of them were seated at the table. The steam of freshly brewed coffee was rising from the four cobalt-blue coffee cups. On each of the four china saucers with garlands of pink roses lay three cocoa-powdered chocolate truffles and a small bunch of golden grapes. Alex was proud of his arrangement.
“This former student of mine was very surprised we were playing canasta.” Jan was continuing a thread he had started with Alex. “Funny how he had always thought of me as a bridge type.”
“The highlight of my week,” Ella chimed in. “A good cup of coffee, catching up on the nonsense of the week with old friends, forgetting all we need to forget.”
“And forgiving you for these fattening delights,” Jan popped one in his mouth and rolled his eyes while the candy was melting on his tongue. “Sheer bourgeois extravagance, Alex, my dear friend.”
“How’s Steve? Still happy in his lab coat?” Fleur wasn’t quite sure why she had asked it or how she would follow this line of conversation. Any other Saturday she wouldn’t have given her questions a second thought. They would rise like steam from the coffee cups in their sheltered corner. These were their best friends, the only people they trusted. There were few secrets between them. Any other Saturday she wouldn’t have kept anything from Alex.
“You know Steve, if you give him a few test tubes and the right stuff, he’ll forget he has family and friends.”
“He’s not looking to change jobs then, is he?” Fleur was startled by her own audacity. Where was she heading?
“Change jobs?” Ella rested her inquisitive eyes on Fleur. “I wish his dream job were matched by a dream pay. But he doesn’t care about money. Where on earth did you get–”
Even Ella, cheerful and oblivious to a fault, was beginning to feel that something was going on. Am I losing my cool?
“Was that the door bell?” Fleur stood up as if summoned by the voice of a spirit at a séance.
So it isn’t about Steve, after all. Then what does he want? Why is he coming back?
“No, just the fancy watch Paul sent me from America.”
“Any news from Paul?” Ella got distracted. Thankful, Fleur leaned forward and took a sip from the blue cup, examining it afterwards for traces of lipstick.
“Fleur, my dear, we are among friends, remember? No microphones around. The neighbors are a room and three layers of hung rugs away. Nothing to be nervous about.” Alex’s voice overlapped the reassuring laughter of their friends and Jan’s vigorous nodding. It was a miracle Alex hadn’t rotted in some remote prison, he’s so trusting.
This time it wasn’t Alex’s fancy watch. She heard it clearly, distinctly, implacably.
Fleur’s cheer-filled voice came from the bottom of the stairs. “Tom, oh, Tom, what a surprise! Come in, by all means, come in.”
Into the canasta room came a smiling young man, slightly disheveled, wearing jeans and a tweed jacket, no tie, loafers on sockless feet.
“Alex, Jan, Ella, we have a lovely surprise visit! This is Tom, my good friend Helena’s son. Alex, you remember, I told you how close I was to Helena in high school. Inseparable. Look what a fine son she has. Tom, this is my husband, Alex, and our dearest friends, Ella and Jan Leszchinski.”
“So sorry to be interrupting your game. I should’ve called. I was in the neighborhood and couldn’t resist dropping by. Mother would kill me if I didn’t. She simply loves you, her very best –”
“We had great times together. Alex, will you get Tom some coffee? And your truffle and grape still-life?”
“What do you do for a living, Tom?” Jan took off his glasses, opened the top button of his shirt, and lowered the knot of his tie.
“I’m a researcher. His–contemporary history.”
“Contemporary eh?“ Alex’s voice came back.
“Are you married, Tom?” Fleur raised her voice to interrupt Alex’s mumbling from the other room. She was looking away from them all, to the gloaming windows.
“No. Haven’t found the perfect girl yet.”
“Ella, we’ve got to find a nice girl for Tom.” Fleur raised her dotty old lady baton: remarkable how well the orchestra was playing considering they had not played a note together before.
“Taste this truffle, young man. Reminds me of the old times, the good ol’ times.” Alex, again.
“These times are not too bad, either, are they now?” Fleur snapped right back. “You can still find your dear chocolate truffles.”
“When our Fleur gets like this, it’s time to resume the game.” Alex tried to bring her gaze level with his, unsuccessfully. Hers was glued to his tie. “Tom, do you know how to play canasta?”
“No, but I’ve got to leave anyway. Too much of an imposition.”
“Why don’t you finish your coffee?” Fleur’s voice had fallen into a precipice from which it was making an effort to rise to the surface, trying to get a hold of the slippery walls.
“Done, thank you.” Tom stood up, bowed to Ella, shook hands with Jan and Alex, then turned to Fleur: “I’ll save the hug for the bottom of the stairs.”
They descended the stairs slowly, quietly, Fleur first, the man behind her. She unlocked the door and opened it wide letting him advance to the threshold. He turned around, and spoke curtly, as if reporting to an invisible commander.
“Mission accomplished. One of us is already here. Thank you, comrade, and good night.”
A short nod and he was out in the street.
Fleur remained there, the door wide open in front of her. The cool evening air slapped her burning face. Fragments of questions were rushing through her mind, trying to find a place to rest and be heard and maybe answered.
One of us is here.
Upstairs laughing faces, truffles half eaten on the plates, empty coffee cups with smeared edges; a basketful of cards shuffled and reshuffled until there can be no more doubts, no more suspicion, no cheating, no betrayal. What is her mission?
“We’ll start the game without you, Fleur.”
Jan’s voice came down to her from where he was sitting, laid back, with his lovely Ella and her dear Alex, all the cards dealt out, ready to be looked at, revealed.
In the mild November night his voice resounded strong and clear.