Gypsy Heartsby Robert Eversz
“Smart-alecky, frequently hilarious storytelling, with brainy send-ups of vampiric Europeans and idiotic Americans on the dark side of the post-Cold War Grand Tour.” —Kirkus Reviews
A darkly comic thriller, Gypsy Hearts tells the story of Richard Milhouse “Nix” Miller, 25-year-old American scam artist posing as a Hollywood screenwriter in Prague—a decrepit Old World city hungry for American glamour. But he meets his match in the sexually rapacious Monika, a gorgeous, half-Gypsy “femme fatale,” whose stone-cold amorality makes even Nix look tame.
The story begins with a strapping youth walking across a bridge in Budapest. A rain-slashed night not fit for man but perfect for young beasts. The youth walks as though wave-tossed. His eyes are hard, his lips cruel, his forehead void of the evidentiary marks of thought. He shouts a command—Stride, feet, stride!—but the pitching river of concrete and steel tangles him to his knees. His mouth stretches wide to roar a defiant belch. He belches, therefore he is! He belches again, beer-drunk.
A second figure stalks the youth from behind. The brim-shade of a fedora cloaks his face to a cleft or scar down the center of his chin. His right arm is plunged elbow deep into his overcoat pocket. A gun? A knife? A book of poems he tries to keep dry in the driving rain?
The youth gasps and belches, laughs and belches, farts and belches. The last belch, dangerously moist, leads him to contemplate the Danube as an impromptu vomitory. He measures distance and arc and wind direction.
Trajectory is a simple problem but the wind confounds him. It gusts and swirls without rhythm, and each sudden updraft is sharp reminder of the consequences of miscalculation.
No witnesses move hunched against the wind. No rain-specked lights glide toward the bridge. The hat-hid man lopes forward. The pocket of his overcoat hides his right hand. His knuckles strain against pocket cloth. Bent against the rail ahead, the evening’s quarry. Cable slaps against steel plate. Teeth grind. Pocket seams stretch to snapping.
A swell of music please, a march and shriek of strings like Bernard Herrmann composed for Hitchcock, ominous and razor-edge hysterical.
The youth half turns and cocks an arrogant eyebrow. No one would dare to. Not to him. And not this runt of a hat-hid man.
A sliver of gray in the rain.
A startled shout.
Blurred flailing, all hands and feet.
By Newton’s law, a limp sack of punctured mortality plummets neither faster nor slower than raindrops dripping off the bridge railing. It descends as though borne by rain, wind gurgling through gaped mouth. A splatter of flesh against water, and red gushes into the dark Danube.
If this were a movie script, that is how I should pitch it. My former trade. Worked in The Biz, as the movie business is called in Southern California, pretending none other exists. Writer-producer credit on a number of projects. First-name basis with major Hollywood players. Condo by the beach. Porsche in the drive. Poolside sex with starlets, buttocks tickled by the shadows of palm fronds. All by the tender age of twenty-five. But this isn’t a movie script. It’s a confession.
The story begins on a train, clattering into the Central European darkness. The Orient Express. Paris to Budapest. Opulent carriage of mystery and romance. Outside the gilt-framed windows, moonlight bounces like silver coins on a taut shroud of February snow. Inside, the elite recline on red velvet and eat their fill of roast mastodon, poached spotted-owl hearts, and marinated tit-lark tongues.
Anyone traveling the Orient Express since 1939 would recognize that scene as fabrication relying on old Agatha Christie novels more than truth. I must begin with the truth.
This story does begin on a train. It is night, and February.
But the Orient Express is like any other Central European train: fouled with cigarette smoke, beer piss, and rank sweat from the newly liberated socialist masses. My fool of a travel agent had booked second-class passage, and I sat trapped in a cramped cabin with two Poles, who chain-smoked and quarreled in a language that sounded to my ears like grinding glass. I tried to read, barricaded behind a copy of the Herald Tribune, but a shattered concentration clawed the words to syllables and serifs. When the Poles’ quarrel abruptly ended with the appearance of a bottle of vodka, I grabbed my bag and escaped to the dining car.
I had no intention of eating what passed for food on that train, but the occupants seemed recently scrubbed, if not particularly compelling, and I did not desire a quick return to my boon Polish comrades. At the insistence of a waiter, I was coaxed into joining the table of a portly man who sported a neatly trimmed beard, like the actor Philippe Noiret, to whom he bore a more than slight resemblance. To be forced companions was an annoyance to both of us, and he seemed relieved that I was content to drink mediocre Hungarian wine and stare out the scarred window, ignoring his attack on some goulash-looking thing the waiter had brought to him shortly after I’d arrived. When finished, he clattered the spoon to his empty plate with a musical sigh of such pitch and duration that I inquired, “Indigestion?”
“Non, simplement incapacit.” He wiped his mustache with sharp short strokes of the napkin and observed, with the discreetly contemptuous tone the French reserve for those of my nationality, “Vous “tes américain.”
“Bien sér, et tu es français,” I responded, switching to the informal form of address. Let him guess whether I was insolent or merely ignorant of French grammar.
The man replied with the classic Gallic shrug, and I thought that would be the end of it, cross swords once and withdraw, but when I returned my gaze to the window, he continued, this time in English, “What do you think of your wine?”
“Ce n’est pas français, ni californie,” I answered.
“Exactement!” he cried, as though my strictly factual observation, intended to sever the conversation, was of great insight. Signaling the waiter for a fresh glass, he filled it with a Bordeaux he said had been pulled just that morning from his wine cellar. I sniffed the bouquet, rolled a drop around my palate, and pronounced it exquis, which, though an exaggeration of the wine’s modest merits, pleased him. He introduced himself as Monsieur Marcel, from Fontainebleau, a château town on the outskirts of Paris. There was no way out but to respond with a few of my own particulars, preferably false. And who am I? The hero of this fool’s tale. Richard Milhous Miller, christened after the thirty-seventh president of the United States and fondly nicknamed Nix by that scion of a used-car dealership empire, my father.
I told Marcel I was a film producer and screenwriter from Hollywood and directed the conversation toward discovering a subject of mutual interest. We found it soon enough: women. Despite his happy little family back in Fontainebleau and a fifty-year history of indulgent dining habits, Marcel was, if you’ll forgive the vulgarism, a pussy hound.
I normally shun casual traveling acquaintanceships as the lowest form of human interaction, but Marcel’s erotic obsessions aroused my interest. He claimed he traveled to Budapest once a month, on business, his visits contiguous to a weekend, when he would invariably seduce one of the local women. His methods were simple and direct. He learned where available women congregated, usually one drinking establishment or another, and, settling in at the bar, ordered cognac in a commanding French baritone. If a woman met his glance twice, he approached with a complimentary remark, such as admiring her hair if it was long and lustrous and an obvious point of pride. He insisted on buying her a drink, most commonly French champagne, and never lost an opportunity to commend the woman on her taste, believing compliments from a Frenchman were the sartorial equivalent of the Burning Bush. From such moments, a shared bed was fait accompli.
Discounting the unfailing charm of a French accent, Marcel was not the image of Adonis. When I suggested doubts, he pulled from his breast pocket a wallet-sized photo album and splayed the evidence of his conquests before me. The women were photographed in restaurants, bars, and the occasional bedroom. Nothing artistic. Flashbulb exposures of bleached faces advancing inexorably on drunkenness. A few could have turned heads in daylight. Several were outright slatternly. Most were ordinary, with the curse of the ordinary: a nose too big, a chin too weak, eyes set crooked in an otherwise attractive enough face. The film caught each in an expression of confused desperation, like refugees afraid of missing the train, who don’t know if they will be allowed to board, or to what destination the train will take them if boarded, but needing at all costs to escape the station.
Marcel’s commentary accompanied the photographs: Katalin, a twenty-seven-year-old shopkeeper with watermelon breasts; Ilona, a waitress who liked Marcel because she liked French champagne; Margit, an art student who nearly caused a scandal when she later came to see him in Fontainebleau. I wondered whether the snapshots were part of the excitement or trophies of the score. Did his hands tremble when he pulled out his camera, pretending the idea of taking a snapshot was spontaneous? I stopped him at a photograph of a thin young girl with immense brown eyes. The flash had caught her full red lips parting around the filter tip of a cigarette. The girl couldn’t have been over twenty. Contemplating the tension between her innocent eyes and the carnality of those lips, I asked Marcel how he managed to seduce her.
“Curiosité,” he said. She had never slept with a Frenchman before. The French have a reputation for romance. Most of the women he seduced were curious. Some hoped he might take them away to a new life in the West, but Marcel never enjoyed the favors of the same woman two weeks in a row. He was married and had no need for a relationship. “When I first bed a girl, I give her a red rose and tell her our romance is young and beautiful as this rose, but when the petals of this red rose fall away, so must I.”
The gullibility of women never ceases to astonish me, but that so many could fall for such romantic swill was a revelation. This was my first inkling that the former Iron Curtain countries might be a sexual playground for a Westerner of some style, and the local inhabitants seduced as effortlessly as easing a virgin leg into a pair of jeans. Thus it was I arrived in Budapest with a sense of purpose. But Budapest has little to do with my story, until much later, when other events came into play. I did meet a Monsieur Marcel on the Orient Express, but Marcel is not the story.
The story begins when the train arrives in Prague, where I have plans to live for six months or so, until the cooling of certain legal difficulties, which have recently embroiled me, allows my return to Southern California.
No, the story begins later still.
The story begins the night I accidentally vomited on the shoe of a woman who, much later in our relationship, would try to kill me.
I met Katerina at an outdoor café in the shadow of Prague Castle’s St. Vitus Cathedral, identifying her nationality and the nature of her visit by the Polish language guidebook she read above her espresso. She wasn’t the type to attract me at first, not that I’m so disciplined as to narrow my choices to one type over another. Later, I learned to appreciate her eyes for their intelligence and trace of mischievousness. Even her stylish flair with clothes—riding pants, black boots, and olive-green coat—was not enough to make her attractive at first glance. She seemed unnaturally pale even by Slavic standards, her skin broken at the chin by a small constellation of blemishes. Her hair curled so vigorously that, when the wind blew, matted tendrils writhed like a hat of snakes from which the rest of her unremarkable face seemed to shrink in terror. But tourists crowded into every chair at the café except the one opposite hers, so it was natural to ask if I could join her. She agreed. We politely ignored each other during the subsequent half hour, Katerina reading her guidebook and myself penning observations in a notebook, until she tried to pay the check and discovered her wallet missing.
I helped her to reconstruct events: she firmly remembered using the wallet to buy tram tickets earlier that afternoon and concluded it had been stolen sometime between purchasing the tickets and coming to the café. Pickpocketing is a common problem throughout the major cities of Europe, and no less so in Prague. I did what any decent person would have done: took care of her bill and offered to lend her whatever money she needed to survive the next few days.
It helped that we got along well. I promised to take her to the police station, but we soon lost track of time touring the castle and the winding streets of Malé Strana below, reasoning together that her vacation shouldn’t be a complete loss. I had lived through the last of Prague’s winter and the first of her vaunted spring by then and knew the city well enough to amuse the first-time visitor. When later that afternoon we arrived at her hotel, she allowed me to pay her bill, scrupulously writing down my name and address so she could later repay me. The cab then took us to the wrong station for the evening train to Warsaw, and by the time we arrived at the correct one, her train had already left. As the next train wasn’t scheduled until the following morning, I offered her the couch in my apartment. Several hours later, as a result of two bottles of wine and a shortage of blankets, we shared the same bed and let the gravity of our sexes take its course. In the end, she hadn’t shortened her vacation at all, and as the train pulled away protested that she didn’t mind so much losing her wallet because she’d found me.
After dropping Katerina at the station, I wandered the medieval labyrinth of Staré Město, Prague’s old town, exploring those hidden streets where the renovator’s brush had yet to reach and the walls retained a patina of Communist neglect. Prague resembled a Potemkin village then, with the major tourist zones a facade for the crumbling ruins a side street away. After years of living in newer-bigger-brighter Los Angeles, any evidence of decay held me in morbid fascination.
A few hours before midnight, I walked to Lávka, a popular dance club with picture-postcard views of river, bridge, and castle on a hill. Lávka was the meeting place that year for the lawyers, economists, advertising executives, government advisers, returning exiles, small entrepreneurs, and big business interests that comprised the advance army of Western civilization. Various male acquaintances and I often met to drink on the back patio and pick up tourists, who flocked there upon spotting it from Charles Bridge, the fourteenth-century span of stone that arches the Vltava River. Two years after the Velvet Revolution, tourists flooded into the country along the Elbe River to the north, over the mountainous spine of the German border to the east, and through the pine hills of Moravia to the south: Scandinavians, Germans, French, Italians, and Austrians retracing with the instinct of migratory birds the invasion paths of their ancestral tribesmen. They massed at the borders and descended upon Prague each weekend, rape and pillage reenacted as shopping, drinking, and whoring. Most went home a few days later, hungover and laden with Soviet army hats, epaulets, watches, and other memorabilia of the victory over the Evil Empire.
Some stayed, particularly the Americans, entranced by Prague’s shabby beauty and carpetbagger economy. Those least qualified for business employment in the West immediately became business experts in the East. English teachers were in such great demand that a passport was deemed ample qualification, and any native speaker untutored in the mysteries of grammar could find work teaching others what he did not know. Most Americans stayed a year, perhaps two, if particularly desperate to avoid responsibility. A few had intentions to settle in Prague on a more permanent basis, but this sort was rarely encountered and was notorious for learning to speak the local language, befriending the inhabitants, and exhibiting other disturbing characteristics of going native.
Andrew was the only Lávka regular I considered a friend, perhaps my only friend in Prague. He sat on the back patio, accompanied by his guitar case and a beer, deep into a characteristic crisis of spirit. Though I considered Andrew my best friend at the time, we had known each other for just under two months; we didn’t know each other at all. But his moods were no secret. He was proud of his moodiness, having made the common error of mistaking it for emotional depth. After he failed to respond to an amusing erotic anecdote about Katerina, whom he had met the night before, I gently chided him about his silence.
“I had a bad shopping day,” he confessed.
I cocked an eyebrow, a conjunctive in the lexicon of facial gestures, meaning And?
“Don’t you ever get upset that you can’t buy anything in this fucking town? Like, all I wanted was a simple tube of toothpaste, it didn’t have to be Colgate or Crest, something from Germany would have done, but I didn’t know the word; then I picked the word out of the dictionary but I couldn’t pronounce it. The clerk looked at me like I was a complete idiot, so I showed her the word, and she shook her head and moved to the next person like I stopped existing. I repeated this, like, in four different stores, took me the entire afternoon, until finally someone gave me a tube of something, and I don’t even know if it’s toothpaste. God only knows what’s in it, certainly not fluoride or tartar control.”
“Sure, but on any night of the week you can find over twenty types of Czech beer. You have to consider what’s most important in life.”
“I hate beer!”
Heresy! Shouting such a sentiment in Prague was the Czech equivalent of condemning apple pie in Washington.
“I’m tired of drinking too much and waking up the next morning with a hangover and some woman I can’t remember meeting the night before. It’s an empty, stupid lifestyle.”
Andrew’s behavior was little different from that of most young Americans in Prague. He smoked and drank to excess. He lived for the favors of sequential lovers. For the first time in his young life, he lived more than one hundred miles distant from his family. Familial conscience had faded to a crackling voice on the telephone. He had no friends from home. No family priest. No school. No government. No one was watching. Nothing was forbidden. God doesn’t punish what God doesn’t see. My God, who had never been the most omniscient deity to begin with, bailed out over the Atlantic or was, perhaps, discreetly pushed.
“I’m thinking of leaving Prague,” Andrew confessed.
“Don’t be such a whiner,” I counseled. “If you go back to the States, you’ll be crying within a month because not only will you be stuck in some stupid job, you won’t be able to afford to drink and no one will want to sleep with you.”
Andrew with great concentration bit a loose flap from the cuticle of his thumb. “I wasn’t thinking of going back to the States, at least not right away.”
“You can’t afford Paris,” I said.
“A refugee camp just opened in the countryside. For Yugoslavs, mostly Bosnians. I thought I’d go there for the summer, teach English to the kids.”
My grin spread unconstrained. Though I felt the occasional wild impulse to do good, I never considered acting on it. The nobler sentiments of altruism and charity seemed irrelevant to the demands of the modern world.
“What’s happening in Yugoslavia is terrible,” Andrew insisted. “We should do something about it. Maybe teaching English isn’t enough, but it’s better than turning a blind eye.”
“Hey, look everybody!” I shouted. “It’s Mother Teresa with a penis!”
My jibe seemed appropriate and clever, and I couldn’t stop myself from laughing out loud. It was then that Andrew hit me a childish blow, the flat of his hand across my jaw. I stared at him in disbelief. He said, “You’re such an asshole.”
“Certainly you don’t—I mean, Andrew, please,” I stuttered.
He pulled violently away from the table, grabbed his guitar case, and fled. I expected someone to rally to my defense, to approach with a commiserating word or hand. Neither came. I’d been told before that contrary to my initial charm I’m not a very likable person. I flagged a passing waiter and ordered six shots of Johnnie Walker. I’m good at first impressions. I practiced introductions for months in the first sallow bloom of my youth. Stood in front of a mirror and grinned, testing blends of sincerity, intelligence, and emotional warmth, with a dash of devil-may-care for spice. The icebreaker first, the clever little tale that always gets the smile. Indeed, Nix is an unusual name, and there’s an interesting story behind. . . . Say just enough to impress, hinting modestly at important matters not at liberty to be discussed. Feign understanding and interest. Sparkle. Move on, before the conversation bores to distraction and the undisciplined truth slips out. I’ve since learned tricks to keep the deception going. Some people have known me for years and have yet to discover anything genuine about my character. But I weaken at times, from greed for human companionship. I can be fooled by the ruse of friendship. My attempts at intimacy have always met a bitter and lachrymal end. Apparently, the more skins peeled from the atrophied onion of my heart, the more pungent the odor.
The waiter returned with my drinks. I lined the glasses straight, knocked the first shot back, and noted the time on my watch. Nothing to be ashamed of, my feeling wounded. Even a monster has feelings. King Kong fell for Fay Wray. The Hunchback of Notre Dame burned for Esmeralda. And who was more human than Frankenstein, struggling to fill with blood and broken bones the emptiness in his newly wrought soul? Rarely is the monster appreciated. Five minutes later, I tossed down the second shot. Perhaps Andrew hadn’t meant it, not really. It wouldn’t have depressed me, had I not loved him. Loved wasn’t the right word. Love was an empty sentiment. The brotherly bond of an older brother? Avuncular affection? Unrecognized homoerotic longing? I considered distant synonyms for love and failed to find one adequate to the situation. I glanced at my watch and emptied the third shot. I was more capable of murder than love. The murderer is a creation of genetics and chance, and as blameless as any predatory creature acting according to its character. May as well blame Lucifer for being a devil. A brilliant thought, really, the monster as victim. You have been chosen, willing or not, to . . . After the fourth shot, my thoughts wouldn’t hold still or, rather, I lacked the intellectual time-space coordination to grasp them. The whisky hit after the fifth shot, unscrewing my head at the neck. I can’t remember drinking the sixth.
Sometime later I tried to chase down my head, which had risen from my shoulders and drifted above the dance floor. I lurched into the crowd and blindly groped the space where I thought my cranium should be. A woman bared her teeth in laughter, thinking my frantic search a new dance craze from the West. I shouted something I can’t recall. An unfortunate elbow sharply reminded me of unsettled matters in my stomach, which insisted on prompt exposure. I glanced wildly about for the bathroom. It lay at the bottom of a steep stairway. Not enough time or physical coordination. I pushed my way toward the railing. The crowd didn’t willingly yield passage. I was jostled, sung to, pushed, and danced around. A raised cobblestone or inadvertent foot tripped me up, and I sprawled onto my hands and knees near a table at the edge of the crowd. The choice of time and place was no longer mine. A dog on all fours vomits where the urge takes it, on the master’s white carpet or not.
“You disgusting man!” a woman shouted at me, her English accented by a barbaric tongue. I looked up to a face as cruel and sensual as the illegitimate spawn of Brigitte Bardot and Genghis Khan. I felt a violent thumping in my chest and wondered why my heart should knock about so fiercely, then noticed the thumps coincided with the vomit-splattered tip of her shoe slamming into my rib cage.
“Get away from me, you disgusting man!” The woman commanded, her blows like those of the horsewoman falling onto the indifferent ribs of a beast. She raised her heel and gave me the thrust of it. I rolled onto my back. She towered above, gloriously enraged. I laughed. She understood! Most women would have shrieked at a man spilling his guts at their feet, but not her. She instinctively understood I was disgusting, loathsome, vile. I was a beast, to be beaten and kicked into submission. An odd idea speared my brain and fixed it like a lump of meat awaiting the spit. If she could come to love me, intuitively knowing my true character, then perhaps I might be redeemed. The next evening, I would present her with my charming self, the dashing, considerate, and intelligent man many women found irresistible. She would know immediately I was a fake. But what type of fake? Might not the mystery intrigue her? I could charm her intuition to sweet sleep, and, like so many others, she might believe I was the gentleman I pretended to be. Later, when conscious knowledge of my true monstrousness met her initial instincts, love and loathing might find balance in understanding.
I crawled home stained and soiled but exhilarated by unreasoning hope. To vomit on a woman one night and win her heart the next was absurd. At most, I could expect a strained acceptance of my apology. But I felt certain I could succeed. I would bring her a dozen red roses—no, three dozen. I would scribe some witty bon mot on a napkin, order a bottle of champagne delivered to her table, and patiently wait for her reply. When she first discovered the generous gentleman to be the vomiting fool from the night before, she would certainly ask my name, accept my offer to sit and share a drink or two. Such a display of style and grace would soften her heart. She would have no choice but to fall in love.
I staggered to my feet just after dawn, head pounding in syncopation with violent knocking at the door. Memories from the previous night floated in the wreckage of my hangover. Andrew. Six shots of Scotch. Rude kicks to my rib cage. The vomit-flecked pumps of an enraged goddess. Curses tumbled past my teeth. How could I have been so stupid? I swung the door open to a pair of State Policemen, one dangling an arrest warrant and the other drawing a bead on my forehead with the barrel of his Walther P-38.
“Up against the wall, American schweinhund!” One commanded, shoving me into the hallway.
“You can’t do this! I’m an American citizen!” I protested.
A fist slammed into my kidney.
“You’re not in America anymore,” he sneered.
“Capitalist exploiter of the heroic masses,” the other taunted.
I felt the brutal tip of the P-38 press against the temporal bone behind my right ear and rued the day I accepted a package from that shadowy figure from the CIA who appealed to my sense of patriotism and duty to country. ”
An inspired fiction, of course, springing into my imagination the moment I put my eye to the peephole and spied two policemen in the hall outside my door. I have a talent for sudden paranoid fantasy, enriched by the vast repertoire of scenes from my years studying movies and television. The two policemen who appeared that morning were far more terrified of me than I of them. One presented an official-looking form while the other hid behind his back, as though I might, if offended, resume the Cold War and so return the country to Soviet hegemony.
“I don’t read or speak Czech. If you have a problem, talk to the American Embassy,” I suggested, and closed the door.
Two minutes later, the policemen mustered the courage to knock again. In the meantime, I had artfully lathered my face with shaving cream to demonstrate complete indifference to their visit. I snapped open the door.
“Please, I have an appointment. I told you to contact the American Embassy if you have any problems. I have many friends in the American Embassy. I’m sure my friends in the American Embassy can handle this.” I was certain that, like trained dogs, they understood only a few key words, two being “American” and “Embassy.”
One’s hand braced against the door when I attempted to swing it shut. “You come,” he commanded.
I gave my most scathing look to the back of his hand, which failed to convince him to remove it from my door.
“Am I to understand that I’m under arrest?” I asked.
He rattled the form in front of me and repeated, “You come.”
The man seemed determined to carry out his job. I considered conflict escalation as the more entertaining alternative to conflict resolution. I could push him backward, slam and lock the door. They wouldn’t break down the door to get me. Later, I could claim it was a misunderstanding.
“Very well. I need five minutes,” I said, holding up five digits, then pointing to the shaving cream on my face.
One’s hand dropped away from the door. I repeated the words “five minutes” several times, flashing my fingers in the space between the closing door and the jamb. One stepped reluctantly back. When the lock clicked into place, I sprang the dead bolt. Done. It would take a bomb to get through that door. I ran water in the sink and proceeded to shave, admiring the steadiness of my hand on the razor. After rinsing, I wandered into the living room, a towel pressed against my chin to staunch the flow from a few small cuts, and estimated the drop out the back window. I lived two floors up in a courtyard apartment. The courtyard was littered with broken beer bottles, rusted piping, molding carpet, shredded cardboard, and the desiccating corpses of various small mammals. The average communist and the white-trash American have at least this much in common: Both are too cheap to discard anything of possible value and too lazy to dispose of the completely worthless. Assuming the jump didn’t break my ankle, I could walk unscathed out the front door of the apartment building.
I selected from the closet charcoal-gray slacks, a white shirt custom tailored to my specifications, Canali silk tie, and Armani checked sport coat. It was important to dress well when conducting any official business in what was then Czechoslovakia. The Czechs had lived so long in a classless society, while secretly longing for its opposite, that any presentation of wealth and style intimidated them witless. If the State Police wanted to ask me a few questions, I would accommodate them with answers of my own choosing. It made little sense to run from a powerless adversary. Perhaps I could even learn something to work into a future screenplay.
It was a dismal spring day, gray and wet. With a few thumps on the dashboard, the driver convinced the wipers to streak across the windshield. I had expected to be taken to the police station in a Tatra, the ominously black trademark car of the Czech secret police, but my two policemen drove a proletarian Škoda. In Czech, Škoda is both proper and common noun. As a common noun, Škoda means “pity.” Escorted up the steps to police headquarters, I pitied how low the minions of Czech law and order had fallen. I was led through a bewildering set of corridors, sat on a bench, and made to wait.
A half hour later, the door to my left opened. My guards ushered me into a small office, where two men casually ignored my entrance, one to study a file folder on his desk and the other occupied by the rain falling beyond the window. The man behind the desk wore a cheap brown suit. On a salary equivalent to two hundred dollars a month, the suit was a sign of honesty. Its ugliness was a matter of personal choice. He gestured toward the chair, a sound like the dry grind of a garbage disposal in his throat.
“I don’t speak Czech,” I said, sitting. “If you wish to interview me, it will have to be in English.”
“Passport, please,” he said.
I handed over my passport and watched him study its pages. I sniffed a reek of cigarettes and poor personal hygiene. The random angled spray of hair indicated his barber was a talentless disciple of Picasso and Braque. His face was all lopsided smudges of gray and pink, held into bare coherence by dark and rheumy spots on opposite sides of the lump that served as his nose. Likely broken a few times and never set right. I judged him a man who would consider timidity a weakness.
“Now that you know who I am, I would like to know who you are,” I said.
The man glanced up from his study of my passport, startled by my voice. His pouched eyes were apologetic. He either hadn’t heard or didn’t understand.
“Who are you? Your name,” I said, as slowly and clearly as possible.
He searched the clutter on his desk and uncovered a nameplate hidden between a stained coffee cup, a dead spider plant, and a stack of file folders. The other man had not moved since my entrance. He dressed like an American—tennis shoes, off-brand blue jeans, lumpy sweatshirt, windbreaker. I wondered if he watched the sky, raindrops roll down the window, or my reflection in the glass. The man behind the desk set my passport aside and opened the top folder on his stack.
“Problems, Mr. Miller. We have problems with you.” He sighed.
I read the name on the plate—Petr Zima—and assumed the jam of consonants before the name was a title of some sort.
“I’m deeply distressed to hear that, Mr. Zima. I also have a problem. With the Gestapo tactic of sending two policemen to abduct me from my apartment on a Sunday morning.”
“I read in your passport you are here three months now. It would not hurt to learn some Czech.”
I laughed at the absurdity of his suggestion. Learn Czech! Learn a language with seven incomprehensible grammatical cases in a country of sixteen million impoverished creatures! I said, “This is a very small country in an English-speaking world. I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask the world to speak your language. You should all speak English.”
“Learn English or die, as the expression goes in my country,” the man at the window carefully pronounced, his eyes fixed on the glass.
“It isn’t a question of life or death, but of being irrelevant.”
“Irrelevance is the same as death to a small country.”
“Do you have some official capacity here, or are you employed to stare out the window and utter profundities?” I asked.
“He is my colleague, from Mad’arsko,” Zima answered.
“Where the hell is that?”
“Hungary, in English. I’m from Budapest,” the man declared, and turned at last to face me. His was the darkness of the Hun who once raged down from the Mongolian plains to plunder Europe. His eyes had no light in them at all, as if the pupil of each had swallowed the iris whole. He introduced himself as Istvān Bortnyk. He said he was a cop, using the American idiom, and attended the interrogation to observe Czech legal procedure. An obvious lie. I wondered what a detective from Budapest could want with me.
“I am very sorry to disturb you on beautiful and sunny Sunday, Mr. Miller,” Zima pronounced with careful irony. “But I hear complaints, and it is my job, whether I like it or not, to look into complaints. To ask questions, take notes, and apologize if complaints are not correct. This is why I ask you to come.” He shuffled through the file folders on his desk and opened what I presumed to be mine. He read, nodding his head at one passage, shaking his head at another, until a final wince testified to a telling blow against my character. Still, his voice managed to register surprise when he announced, “I have reports here from several young women. All say they go to café or club, meet you, and same night their wallet is stolen. It’s too much for coincidence, I think.”
“Several young women,” I repeated, with all the arch dryness I could muster from the frantic chase of my heart. “Name one.”
“Please, we are not stupid,” Zima said.
“Neither am I. If a specific person has made a specific charge against me, I want to hear it.”
Zima lifted a form to rheumy eyes and, after careful study, produced the name Victoria Goddard.
Ah, Victoria. The first word she screamed after realizing her money had disappeared was police. I tried to convince her that the local law was not as friendly or competent as her neighborhood bobby, but she insisted on making the complaint. I had no choice but to let her go, alone of course, and hope her lack of Czech and the laziness of the local law would spell the end of it. Apparently, it hadn’t. Never underestimate the indignant outrage of an Englishwoman.
“I am aware Miss Goddard had her purse picked, but I don’t see what it has to do with me.”
“You were there when it happened.”
“So were a couple hundred others. She lost her pocket-book at Lávka on a crowded Saturday night. You certainly don’t expect me to believe that Victoria accused me of taking it, do you?”
Zima allowed the question to hang in the air, then dropped his eyes back to the file folder. A persistent clicking chipped away at my concentration. I traced the sound to a ballpoint pen in Bortnyk’s hand, the tip extending or retracting with each rhythmic plunge of his thumb. Zima cautiously turned aside the top form in the file folder and, without moving his eyes from the next document, fumbled at a familiar spot on his desk, shook a cigarette from a pack of Czech Spartas, and lit it. The clicking of the ballpoint was as annoying as a dripping faucet. Did he really think such low-level psychological harassment would unnerve me? Zima must have hoped his long pauses inspired terror of the unknown, but all I felt was a suffocating heat. The office was unbearably hot. I cursed the decision to wear a sport coat. In a matter of minutes, I had sweated through my clean white shirt. Neither Zima nor Bortnyk seemed to be troubled by the heat. What evidence did they have? Several more rabbits could spring out of that hat. Anna, Hanna, Helga . . . several others whose names I couldn’t recall. The trouble was not knowing. If I knew what they planned, I could defend myself. I could prepare answers. I fought a desperate urge to loosen my tie and wipe my brow. I must show no weakness. What if they had evidence? I was certain the sweat was popping out my forehead. There could not be any evidence. I had been careful, and no searches were made. I didn’t have to say anything. I wished I could stop sweating. One look at the sweat on me and I’d be condemned. But neither paid the least attention. Zima read, preoccupied with his papers. Bortnyk stared out the window, clicking his pen. They knew nothing.
I cleared my throat and said, “I asked a question. Did Victoria Goddard accuse me of any impropriety?”
Zima didn’t bother to look up from his papers.
“Why do you think you’re here?” Bortnyk asked. The question was artfully ambiguous. Did he call for supposition on my part, or was the reason for my presence so obvious only an idiot couldn’t see it?
“I don’t have any idea—” I began.
“Margit Szabo,” Zima announced, interrupting me.
“—why I’m here,” I finished.
I waited for Zima to continue, because though I’d deliberately completed my sentence, displaying my calm and lack of guilt, the name was not meaningless. It had been called out to make me jump. But Zima had no intention of rushing his investigation. He stubbed out his cigarette, lit another, and returned to his documents. I had met Margit during the first cold month of spring. At the time, I was certain she hadn’t suspected anything. How could she? I was a perfect gentleman. Margit was barely twenty, as fresh and sweet and lightly browned as unpasteurized cream. She was so grateful after I rescued her from an embarrassing financial situation that we frolicked nonstop for three days. In fact, it was difficult getting rid of her. She had secret yearnings to be a movie actress. My experiences in Hollywood suitably impressed her, and I think she was overwhelmed by my generosity. I was the rich and famous American of her fantasies. She was crying when I put her on the train to Budapest.
“So, you know Margit,” I said, twisting around in my chair to face Bortnyk.
It was the only possible explanation for the absurd scene the two were playing, though Bortnyk did not respond to my question with so much as a glance.
“Are you a friend or family?” I asked, and noted with satisfaction a determined nonreaction in the tensing of muscles along the ridge of his jaw. “I’ve heard that in some countries a foreigner dating a local woman risks being abducted at gunpoint and threatened with death. Is this the Hungarian variation on that theme? When a foreigner compromises a relative’s virtue, you resort to legal harassment?”
His dark face went darker still.
Zima looked up from his documents. His eye met Bortnyk’s. Bortnyk dipped his head, terse and murderous.
“Margit Szabo,” Zima repeated. The name was a broken shell, drained of its ability to inspire fear. “I want you to say me how you meet this young woman.”
I crossed one leg over the other and examined the handsome cut of my Italian loafer. I was a bit of a cad, if the truth be known, not above taking amorous advantage of a young beauty who wanted it. No crime. Many would admire me. That would be the limit of my confession. I risked a quick sweep of my brow. “I met the young lady in question at the café in Obecní Dům, where we shared a table by chance.” I turned to address Bortnyk. “Obecní Dům is one of the world’s finest Art Nouveau buildings. I don’t suppose you’ve been there?”
Bortnyk nodded, reluctant to be engaged.
“Inside, in the café? Then you know how crowded it can be when tourists are in town. There wasn’t a free table that afternoon, so I was forced to share one with Miss Szabo. Not that I found her disagreeable. I had hoped for a little privacy, to work on a screenplay for a film I plan to have produced here.”
“You walk into café and see Miss Szabo. You sit at her table,” Zima said, not interested in my screenplay.
“Is it a crime to share a table in a crowded café? I thought it was local custom.”
“You misunderstand!” Zima exclaimed, though he knew I understood perfectly well. “We do not formally accuse you of crime. Please continue.”
“There isn’t much to it. As I said, I sat at her table and jotted a few notes down. Miss Szabo and I began to talk. When it came time to leave, she looked in her purse, and—”
“Who spoke first?” Zima interrupted.
“I don’t see how that matters.”
“An unimportant point, but please answer.”
I made a show of rifling through the rusted cabinets of memory.
“I did. My pen ran out of ink. I asked her for a pen. I keep a full supply of pens just on the verge of going dry, you understand, so that I might use them as a pretext for starting conversations with pretty young girls.”
“Where did Miss Szabo get pen?”
“I have no idea.”
“You did not see her take it from purse?”
“If I did, I certainly don’t remember now. This happened two months ago. A silly little tragedy with a happy ending.”
“Where did Miss Szabo keep purse?”
“I don’t recall.”
“She put it on chair between you, for safekeeping?”
“Miss Szabo’s purse was the last thing on my mind.”
A sharp exhalation of breath from Bortnyk blew across the room.
Zima asked, “Did you leave table at any time, say, for example, to go to toilets?”
“I may have. I really don’t remember. It’s quite possible I did. Coffee is a powerful diuretic.”
Neither of them had the faintest idea what I meant.
“It makes you pee,” I explained.
That they understood. Zima even smiled.
His line of questioning carefully traced the logic of the crime. Choose the victim, establish contact, gain her trust, snatch the wallet, and slip off to the bathroom to dispose of all but the valuables. The moment comes to pay the bill, and poor Miss Szabo can’t find her wallet. She’s confused, flustered, alone in a strange country. The handsome young man at her table gallantly offers to pay. Miss Szabo gratefully accepts, too upset to ask herself why her eye didn’t catch, when she opened her purse to loan the pen, the glaring breach of a missing wallet. If she did not notice the wallet was missing then, it was picked after the handsome young man joined her.
“This is embarrassing to both of us,” I said to Zima. “You have a colleague, maybe a friend as well, upset because a young American seduced his relative. He invents a ridiculous charge and convinces you it’s the truth. But if you look at the logic of it, that I stole Miss Szabo’s wallet so I could get rich on her zlotys or florins or whatever the hell the Hungarian currency is, the accusation makes no sense. These are not convertible currencies, and Miss Szabo herself told me the sum she lost was insignificant by Western standards.”
Bortnyk slipped behind my chair and whispered, “You are a smooth operator, Mr. Miller.” His position forced me either to twist uncomfortably or allow him to shoot accusations into the back of my head. I looked at Zima, who gazed out the window. Bortnyk’s voice breathed in my ear. “I asked myself many times if you were crazy. You did not need the money. Only a crazy man would take such stupid risks. But now I know you are not crazy. You are a very clever man.”
“Do you know how much money I spent bailing Miss Szabo out of her jam?” I complained to Zima. “First, I paid all her expenses: meals, drinks, entrance fees. She needed money to buy a little something for her mother, and I gave it to her. I even bought her train ticket back to Budapest!”
“You used the money from her purse, didn’t you?” Bortnyk whispered.
“You stole her money and then used that same money to wine and dine and win her gratitude.”
“Are you her father?”
“I think you like to steal from young women so you can rescue and then seduce them.”
“You’re her uncle. That’s it. Her uncle.”
“These women think you generous, romantic. But you laugh at them. They are fools! You steal their money and they sleep with you! It is ingenious, this scheme of yours. A great joke!”
But it’s just a game! I wanted to cry out. A harmless erotic amusement, a charade of financial bondage. No one gets hurt. I give full value. A romantic tour of Prague, bed and breakfast included. What woman on holiday doesn’t yearn for a romance with a sympathetic and sexy man? I enliven dull vacations, provide fodder for postcards, am something to tell the friends back home and reflect upon in old age. I have a drawer full of letters thanking me for my generosity. One or two mailed bank drafts as repayment, which I returned, complaining that to be repaid cheapens the deed. I haven’t pocketed a haler or kopek from anyone. If any change remains after our time together, I discreetly slip it into a pocket, to be found later, with fond thoughts of my kindness. I defy anyone to show me the harm done.
“You are a sick and repulsive man. A thief. A petty purse snatcher.”
“I think you’ve said enough,” I began, quite calmly, despite the rage bubbling from my chest. A petty purse snatcher! Me! “I refuse to discuss this without the presence of consul from the American Embassy. I am in Prague to write a multimillion-dollar screenplay for Paramount Pictures, a production which I hope will be of benefit to both our countries. To be hauled into a police station on a Sunday morning and slandered by a cop from Budapest is an outrage! Obecní Dům is a notorious hangout for Gypsies. Every day, one long table is packed with these creatures—black marketeers, money changers, thieves—and yet, based on the jealousies of this cop, you allow me to be accused of the crime of Miss Szabo’s missing wallet. You have no evidence, and the logic of the accusation sounds ridiculous. I did it as a joke? I have been very patient with you, but now I must protest! I am an American citizen! I can speak with Ambassador Shirley Temple Black tomorrow! Are you looking to create a diplomatic incident?”
I must admit to shouting toward the end of my speech, overwhelmed by the injustice of the accusation. A petty thief indeed! Zima’s eyes lifted apologetically to Bortnyk. Wary sarcasm returned to his voice. This was intended to be a friendly interview, he said, and he was sorry if I had taken offense, when no offense was meant. I was free to go.
“You’re not filing charges, then?” I asked.
“Not at this time.”
“Can I expect more police harassment in the future?”
“Please, Mr. Miller, it’s time for you to go.”
I stood to leave, but couldn’t help a last attempt to satisfy my curiosity regarding Bortnyk.
“You’re her uncle, aren’t you?”
“I’m her fiancé, you fool.”
“A little old for her, aren’t you?” I said, without thinking.
He was on me before I had a chance to react, landing a right hook just above my ear. I threw my arms over my head and staggered back against the wall. His fists slammed into my ribs. I imagined one breaking off to pierce my heart. Zima slowly rose from his desk, decided his friend had revenge enough, and pulled him off. I straightened up and noticed a tear in my custom-tailored dress shirt. Savage bastard!
“You’re a witness,” I said to Zima. “I will be in touch with Ambassador Black in the morning. Charges will be filed.”