He had not slept. He had pounded and kicked at the cafeteria doors before the girl would open, then he lied (claiming "special permission") before he could get some service. Nursing solemnly his third refill of coffee, he watched as Melanie crossed the common—bounding through the drifts like a frisky colt, her breath puffed silver. Inwardly, he groaned. He did not relish anybody's company just now, especially this eager young girl's, whose presence (for she undoubtedly was cantering his way) could only serve to churn conflicting emotions. Besides, he had suffered another seizure. He suspected it had been a mild one—he had not fallen, nor were there any signs he had thrashed about—just a little reminder that his body and his mind were not his own.

Melanie was knocking at the double doors. The cafeteria attendant went to answer.

"Sorry. We're not open until seven."

Melanie looked beyond her.

"What about him?"

The girl looked blankly, apparently not considering Julian's presence a contradiction—or grounds for relaxing the rules a second time.

"I'm sorry."

Melanie scowled.

"Julian, this girl won't let me in!"

He looked over, paused long enough to make her angry, then motioned it would be okay. The girl let Melanie enter. She marched directly over to his table.

"Thank you, Your Highness. God, you'd think you owned the place."

He made no reply.

"Aren't you going to ask me to sit down?"

He remained silent.

Should she join him uninvited? Or should she turn on her heels and storm right out for good?

He arrested the latter course by a grudging nod.

Melanie sat down.

"You look awful. What's the matter?"

"Awful? Worse than usual, you mean? Here, have a closer look."

He removed his glasses.

Recovering from the shock of this unprecedented action, Melanie noted the condition of Julian's eyes. They looked positively ghoulish, bloodshot, rimmed with sallow skin, the irises a blaze of gory color. But her inspection quickly changed from looking at his eyes, to looking into them. He bore this with a mixture of nostalgia and despair. He had seen before what he described as "the evangelic look." In Miriam. What saddened him was its being aped by Melanie—whom he had considered a different breed, unique in certain respects… And perhaps she was indeed, for presently she made him look away—something Miriam had never made him do.

"Petitioning my soul?"

He moved to replace his glasses. Impulsively, she intercepted his hand.

"Don't. Please? Unless it hurts. Is the light too bright here?"

Her gesture had thrown them both. He hesitated, unsure why. She held his hand, frightened, yet unwilling to let it go.

"No… No, the light's all right… I knew a girl once who fancied herself a soul-gazer—one Miriam Jeffries, by name. A pathetic case was Miriam. She…"

His words trailed off. Melanie's eyes were embarrassing him. He averted his own a second time. She sensed his shyness, and would have stopped, had not she felt a strange connection, a sensation actually, a tingly sort of vibration in her spine, which she had felt before, though not so strongly as now, with their palms together, touching. Julian began to feel it, too—or something like it. He let his eyes return to hers. For a moment longer, each allowed the other a fundamental probing.

Then the contact of their hands made both self-conscious. Simultaneously they flinched and broke the bridge; the strange communion ended.

Neither had a ready explanation, though Melanie now appeared the more confused.

"Julian, I… You…"

He sought to cover.

"Ms. Miriam Jeffries, I was saying, a real crusader. Miriam believed in Karma—and Zen, and Christ, and Yoga, and Palmistry, and a bastard version of Reincarnation, and half a dozen other things. I was David to her Bathsheba, until it all went sour. Then she moved on to become St. Joan—recasting me Nebuchadnezzar. Have you ever noticed how the past-life preachers always trace their lines to people who are famous—or infamous?"

"What happened to her?"

"I think she married Robin Hood and started breeding merry men."

She laughed. He had not heard her laugh before. It had a pleasant sound. He liked it, and it helped relieve the tension. Suddenly, she grew sullen.

"Have you had a lot of girl friends?"

"Just the ones you saw tacked on my wall."

She blushed. How had he known? She hastened to deny it.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

He reached into his pocket and presented her with a piece of folded paper. It was her note. He read:

"Bishop to e6. Check. King to…"

"Where did you get that?"

"Where you left it for me, of course. Down the crack between my bed and pin-up wall."

How humiliating! She tried to fashion an acceptable excuse, borrowing from the truth.

"I was just coming to class, is all. I knocked and you didn't answer so I went in to leave you a note."

"Thinking I'd be sure to see it hidden under the bed."

"I didn't put it there on purpose. I must have dropped it accidentally."

"While you were straightening up for me? How sweet."

She got mad. Why did he have to drag it out, make her suffer?

"You just want to make me feel bad because I saw your nasty pictures. You're the one who ought to be ashamed."

"I guess you didn't like my gallery. No wonder, they are an ugly crew."

"Because you made them that way!"

"It's true. I seem to bring out the worst in people—case in point."

"You know what I mean."

"Oh, my modifications? Believe me, those are vast improvements. The originals have deformities that far exceed the whimsies of my pen. Shall I enumerate them? From left to right we had: Polly Elton, a pearl of a girl, faithful and true-blue, who…"

"Don't bother. I'm not interested."

"No? Then why were you over there ogling them? Polly Elton, I say—my first—a moon-faced sort of doting type whose freckles gave me hours of unadulterated joy—I told her, you see, that if she let me lick them, I could make them disappear. I think at first she half believed me. Perhaps that early disappointment preordained our end. She up and left me for another—who either didn't tell white lies, or was a better licker."

"Julian, I know you're trying to be funny, but…"

"Then came Miriam, the girl I mentioned. I neglected, though, to tell you why we failed to get along. It wasn't her affinity for aberrant beliefs, so much as her aversion toward anatomy—especially mine. The simple maxim, 'in our bodies do our souls reside'—when faced with my integument—was much too much for Miriam. We parted chastely, leaving not a mark one another's hide."

Melanie got up to leave.

"And now we come to the champion of them all—Mercedes Ballantine."

She put on her coat, hat, and gloves, then paused to see if he would stop.

"Mercedes—she from whom, once suckered in, I was granted no reprieve."

Melanie started to go.

"She saw me win a challenge match last year. Or was it two years ago? No matter; her impact stays the same. She was struck by the disparity between my age and that of my opponent, imagining me a babe-in-arms—her arms—which were long and graceful and, like her legs, tentacular. She had an intriguing theory about genius. Mercedes believed it could be sucked, like an egg yolk, through a pinhole in its shell. Equipped herself with a special beak for piercing people's shells, Mercedes made a hobby out of sodomizing eggs—prize eggs, that is."

This was too much. Melanie had heard enough. And yet she had to force herself walk away.

"I don't think the woman knew a thing about the game. She was there with a musician—a famous one, I gathered. He was the chess-buff; she just tagged along for sundry kicks. I guess he had given a pretty glowing account of me, because after the match she came fluttering around like a moth, a regal moth—or a bitch in heat. That was her unique allure—a compelling combination of Divine Right Queen and whore. She invited me to a dinner party."

Having reached the cafeteria doors (Julian not quite beyond her hearing), Melanie hesitated.

"I admit I was flattered. She was gorgeous, and sophisticated. No question she had money. And as I said, she absolutely reeked of sex. So I showed up at the appointed hour, flowers in hand, a lamb for slaughter."

She gripped the handle to release its latch but did not depress it.

"The desk-clerk in the lobby phoned, announcing my arrival. Fifth floor, room number 508. The elevator opened, I stepped in, pressed five, the doors slid closed, and I was born up bliss-ward, unresisting."

Julian, looking straight ahead at no one, took a sip of coffee.

"The carpet in the hallway sported fleur-de-lis. There was a peephole in the door. I felt her peering. I peered back and saw a nose and one distorted mascaraed eye. It winked. The door swung open. And there she stood—a blood-red smile across her face, stark naked."

He took another sip.

"I gasped. She laughed, and pulled me in. There was no dinner—or rather, I was dinner. She excused her bold appearance in a toast—'I examined you,' she said, 'It's only fair I grant you equal time.' We clicked glasses. The wine, I'm sure, was drugged. And from that point on, the evening was a psychedelic whir."

The coffee was cold and bitter as he took another swallow.

"When I got home my mother nearly fainted. I was covered, head to foot, in eyebrow-penciled lines, looking like some necromantic diagram. All the symbols were colored with rouge, foundation, hair dye, and some twenty different shades of high-gloss lipstick. She had to bathe me; I was in no condition to bathe myself. I remember watching this gaudy oil slick swirling down the drain… along with my self-respect. Next day I went back. She had checked out. The desk clerk had an envelope for me. I hoped it was her forwarding address. Instead it held a photograph—Mercedes in the nude, bending over, cheeks—both sets—cracked open in mocking smiles."

He downed the remainder of his coffee.

"The snapshot had an inscription on the back. It read: 'To my dear vanilla puppy, you were delicious. Many happy returns ha ha, Mercedes."

Finally Melanie depressed the handle and fled.

Julian, following with his eyes, repeated "ha ha."

 

"So where are...

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