Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Devil's Day Off

It was a charming Victorian nestled within a snug row of its peers on a tiny side road in the vicinity of California St. It was just the sort of place for an ambitious man to sit down and write his first piece of publishable work, and that was the plan. From the round attic window, the bay could be seen beyond the gray tongue of road that rolled down one and up another steep hill. Aurelius bought it at a price far below market value. The former owner, an elderly gentleman, had passed away in a hospice care facility leaving the place to a niece residing somewhere in the bosom of middle America. It had been a simple matter for Aurelius to contact her and make her an offer. She was getting on in years herself and was all too happy to be done with the whole affair. The entire estate was his, complete with elegant antique furniture and shelves of dusty books and trunks brimming with oddities. He had the outside painted and began the work of sorting through the house’s contents, separating those things which he would incorporate into his own d├ęcor from those things which would be sold through local Antiques dealers.
In that attic with the little round window offering it’s remarkable view, Aurelius discovered a small wooden chest ornamented with elaborate floral carvings. It contained a very brittle leather bound journal filled with fascinating hand written accounts; poems, personal anecdotes and even a few short stories which bid him read page after page. He took it with him to the bedroom and kept it on his nightstand and read through it again and again.

When there were suitable enough living conditions to permit it, he organized a house warming party, inviting a few handfuls of friends. They streamed through the door one evening in late May carrying in with them the intoxicating scent of night blooming jasmine. They drank his wine and ate his cheese and told him how lovely his house was. Lourie’s poet boyfriend entertained for a while with bits of verse. Emile and Jerry talked about their recent trip to Florence. There was a bit of dancing, a few new jokes, and as the evening wore on, Aurelius succumbed to one of his greatest delights and made himself the center of attention by allowing Alicia (darling Alicia) to persuade him to read some of his new short fiction. His charismatic presence and handsome face easily elicited warm responses from his company as he read, allowing for one story to give way to another. Two of these were his, but one story which he had copied from the brittle leather journal was not his own. It was the story of a young man unwittingly entering into a contract with dark forces resulting in his appointment to the devil’s place in hell while good old Beelzebub got to run amok in the youth’s stead. The assembled leaned in as he read it, jaws slackened and eyes crinkled mirthfully at the edges. At the conclusion, they slapped their knees and laughed and it was enthusiastically agreed that this was his best work to date.

While the room broke into a series of small conversations between two and three people here and there, a short man with a pointy beard seated himself on the divan beside Aurelius. He wore a black turtleneck, pleated slacks and wing tipped shoes with wings the color of spilt burgundy. His host nodded to him and tried to remember the gentleman’s name. He had come with Lourie and her boyfriend, or was it Alicia that had introduced him earlier? Aurelius could not remember properly and took this to be the effects of too much wine. The little man grinned like a Cheshire cat and said,
“I particularly liked that last story. You wrote it?”
Aurelius nodded noticing an unusual odor.
“Yes. Yes, it’s part of a new collection I’m working on.” He answered promptly. He was fairly sure that this man must be the Editor friend that Alicia had mentioned on the telephone. The smell reminded him of anti dandruff shampoo, of selenium sulfide.
“Whatever inspired you?” the little man asked, still smiling as much like the cat that swallowed the canary as like the cat that troubled young Alice.
Aurelius chuckled.
“I really couldn’t say. Since moving into this place I’ve found myself submerged in a piece of history. All of these antiques, the house itself. I was moved to write something set in another period.”
“The voice of it was so different from the other two pieces you read,” the man commented.
“It’s something I’m trying out. You liked it?” Aurelius asked him.
“Oh yes.” The man said, “It was a great pleasure to hear you read it.”
Then Emile came over and interrupted, to thank Aurelius and say goodbye.

Thirty minutes later, all of the guests, having bestowed their thanks, were completely absent, leaving behind only lipstick stained wine glasses, crumpled napkins and crumbs of cheese. Aurelius was carrying the wine glasses off to the kitchen when he heard a soft knock at the door. Upon answering it, he discovered that it was in fact the little dark haired man whose name he could not recollect. The possible editor.
“Excuse the intrusion.” He said, “But may I speak to you for a moment?”
Aurelius opened the door widely and welcomed the gentleman back in with a backward sweeping motion.
“Certainly.” He accepted him with grace.
“Thank you.” The gentleman said and crossed over the threshold. Aurelius closed the door behind him and led him into the kitchen.
He paused there and sniffing said,
“I smell something burning. Do you smell that?”
With a half shake of the head, the little man answered.
“No.”
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Aurel offered, “I was thinking of making some for myself.”
“Yes, thank you.” The gentleman accepted.
Aurelius offered his guest a chair and busied himself preparing the coffee maker. When the steady drip, drip had begun the gentleman said,
“I would like to talk to you about that story. I know that you are not its author.”
Aurelius stared at the smiling man. The smiling man stared back with dark twinkling eyes.
Then Aurelius laughed and took two coffee mugs out of the cupboard and set them upon the counter. When he looked back at the gentleman, the other continued.
“I know that you are not its author, because I am.”
Aurelius burst into a more robust burst of laughter upon hearing this proclamation.
“You are saying,” he said feeling slightly relieved, “that you are the author of the story that I read this evening?”
“Yes.” The little man answered in musical tones, “That is what I am saying.”
Now Aurelius smiled and poured the coffee.
“I’m sorry but you are mistaken.” He handed a steaming mug to his accuser who took it and proceeded to swallow the scalding liquid down with great greedy gulps.
“Careful!” Aurelius cried out, but the gentleman was already smacking his lips with satisfaction and offering back the empty cup.
“Would you mind pouring me another?” the gentleman asked sweetly.
Aurelius looked at the steam rising from his own mug and cautiously took a testing sip which caused him to wince when it burned his lips and tongue.
“How…” he began but broke off. The burning smell was intensifying. “What… Uh… What did you say your name was?”
“I have yet to say. I did not come to the party with any of your friends, and I did write that story.” The little man rose and poured himself another cup of coffee and drank it in the same manner. Then as the stunned Aurelius gawked he continued. “I’m not angry that you lied. On the contrary I am very pleased that you should wish to be me. Very pleased indeed.” He strode to his chair, clapped one hand down on its back and smiled. “I am going to let you do it. I’m going to let you be me. And I’ll be you.”
Aurelius stood up suddenly,
“Listen, I don’t know who you are, or what game you are playing, but I know you couldn’t have written that story.”
“You don’t know anything yet.” The other replied crisply.
Aurelius stared in astonishment, for the speaker which responded to him was no longer the little gentleman, but rather himself, a mirror image of himself, standing with its hand clamped down on the back of a chair. That other self flashed a saturnine smile. The burning smell was overwhelming. Aurelius felt as if he were falling asleep. He could not move, could barely muster the will to stay awake.
“It’s uncomfortable at first.” His double was saying, “but you’ll get used to that after a while.” Aurelius was going blind. He felt uncomfortably warm and a mounting pressure squeezed him from all sides.
“I’ve declined to mention my name.” His double was saying, “Because you wouldn’t believe me if I blurted it out. Once you get where you’re going, you’ll know who I am”
Aurelius felt that his body was becoming oppressively heavy. He struggled to keep his eyes open, but with or without his eyelids shut, the scene seemed to bleed away. At last he could no longer see into the kitchen nor perceive any part of his body. Sinking deep into the darkening abyss, he heard that other voice saying,
”Thank you for your admiration, Aurelius. Thank you for that harmless little lie. I hope you will enjoy your time in my place. I will certainly enjoy my time in yours.”

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