Shadows of the New Sun

Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe

Edited by J.E. Mooney and Bill Fawcett

Tor Books

Frostfree

GENE WOLFE

 

Roy Tabak had a new refrigerator. There could be no doubt of that. It gleamed. It was wider than his old one; it was taller, too. It made everything else in his kitchen look small and a trifle dirty. Brand new, he decided, and styled in a subtly pleasing way nothing in the store was. No doubt he had special-ordered. No doubt it had been delivered, and he had opened the door for the delivery and exchanged a few tired jokes with the men who brought it. When they had gone, he had no doubt wiped it down and waxed it with appliance wax.

Roy Tabak sold refrigerators, and he could remember none of that.

He opened the main compartment. There was food in it, and it looked good. There was beer in it, too, twenty bottles as least. It was not his brand, and the food was not his. What was that green stuff?

Movers, clearly, had been moving furniture and so forth into a new apartment. There had not been room enough in the van for this large refrigerator, so they had made a separate trip for it. They had put it in his apartment by mistake. No doubt they had been amateurs, friends helping some friend move. They had failed to notice that the refrigerator had been full of food and beer.

It was all very simple and convincing, and it would be more simple and convincing after a beer. Still more after six or eight. Aloud, Roy Tabak said, “Hell and damn!”

“If you are unable to find that which you seek,” his new refrigerator said politely, “I may be able to direct you, sir.”

Roy Tabak went into the living room and sat down. How many beers had he had? None at all. He had just gotten home from work. Besides, beer didn’t do that. He took off his suit coat and hung it almost neatly in the hall closet, loosened his tie, then removed it altogether and draped it over the back of a chair. His collar was not tight, but he unbuttoned it anyway. Tight collars could make you hear voices, right?

After much searching, enlivened by some pacing up and down, during which he was careful not to look through his cramped little dining room into his kitchen, the phone book provided the number of the Free Psychiatric Hotline—“Trained Psycholagists on Duty 24/7.” The misspelling of “psychologists” did nothing to increase his confidence, but he dialed the number anyway.

“Free Psychiatric Hotline. How can we help you?”

“It’s not normal to hear voices, is it?”

“That depends. You’re hearing mine right now, aren’t you?”

“I don’t mean like that,” Roy said. “You know what I mean.”

“Voices that accuse you of things?”

“No.”

“Voices that urge you to commit murder?”

“Huh-uh. This voice offered to help me find something in my—I mean in the refrigerator in my kitchen.”

“Ummm.”

“It was very polite. Like a woman’s voice, but like the noise a refrigerator makes when it runs. You know.”

“I wish I did. Is there a woman there with you?”

Roy Tabak winced. “No. No, there’s not.”

“Maybe a neighbor?”

Mrs. Jackson was not at all bad looking; there had been times when he had envied Mr. Jackson. Mrs. Adcock was a bit too old. “No,” he said. “I’m alone.”

“Perhaps someone just dropped in. Someone selling something.”

Dahlia—over in Lingerie—was hotter than hell. Roy said, “I sell things myself. Stoves, refrigerators, trash compactors, microwaves. Stuff like that. I’m the only one in here who sells things.”

“What do the others do?”

“There aren’t any others.”

“I see. How often have you heard the voices?”

“Just one voice, and I’ve only heard it once.”

“Okay.… It was probably somebody outside, or else a radio or something. If you hear these voices again, call back.”

Feeling defeated, Roy said, “Sure.”

“Especially if they want you to kill people. Or kill yourself. I’ve been looking through the index, but there’s nothing about finding stuff in the refrigerator, see? So what I need is something that’s here in DUFFY AND STANKY.”

“Uh-huh.” Roy Tabak hung up. It had been a dream. Almost certainly it had been a dream that he had somehow taken for reality. He would call out to the refrigerator, and it would not reply.

A little later, when he felt more secure.

What had happened to his tie? He switched on the TV, winced, and muted the sound. Baseball was never on when he wanted to watch it. Somebody must be in charge of that.

“We single men,” he said, “we like to go out at night. We cruise the bars, and now and then we hook up. You start the game around seven-thirty, and we don’t watch because we know we won’t get to see anything past the fourth inning.”

The TV remained muted. It would be nice, Roy Tabak reflected, if they would build TVs that listened to you.

He returned to the kitchen, half expecting that his old refrigerator would be there. The new refrigerator still gleamed. It had no eyes, no nose, and no mouth, yet it somehow looked quiet. And helpful. It was eager to help. You could see that.

Both his kitchen chairs were narrow, shiny, and much less than comfortable. He pulled one out just the same and sat down on it to study the refrigerator.

The refrigerator studied him back. After five minutes or so, he got it. The freezer door was opaque from outside but transparent from inside, sort of like the security mirrors in the store. The refrigerator’s eyes were behind it. Watching.

He got up, opened the food storage door, and got a beer. It was a SUPER-URB lager, brewed in Al Fashir, New Jersey. He opened it, said, “Here’s to you,” and drank. It was better than his brand.

There were corn chips in the bread box. He opened the bag. “I don’t suppose you have any chip dip?”

“I have three,” his new refrigerator said politely. “Guavacado, whipped kasseri, and fava-bean habas. Which would you prefer?”

Roy Tabak sipped his beer, rose, opened his new refrigerator, and took out the green stuff.

“Ah! The guavacado. Good choice, sir.”

It was in an oddly shaped container so transparent as to be almost invisible. The green paste it held tasted just fine on a corn chip.

“I have a talking refrigerator,” Roy Tabak said. He gulped beer. “Do you know what that proves? It proves that the world is one hell of a lot more complicated than I thought.”

“Indeed, sir.”

Roy scooped up more guavacado dip. “Are you a Kelvinator?”

“No, sir.”

“Mmmm.” He munched a chip. “Whirlpool?”

“No, sir.”

“KitchenAid?”

“No, sir. I am your refrigerator, sir. It might be best to leave it at that.”

“Sure.”

“I am here to help you.” Roy Tabak’s new refrigerator sounded soothing, almost motherly.

He sipped more beer and swallowed. “You’re from the government, right?”

“No, sir. The WSPC, sir.”

“Not the government.”

“No, sir. We are a tax-exempt foundation, sir. In law, I mean.”

“A foundation of refrigerators?” Roy Tabak scooped guavacado dip onto a fresh corn chip.

“No, sir. A foundation of persons. I say we because I am a possession of the Society. Need I explain further?”

Chewing, Roy Tabak nodded.

“Very well. You are familiar with dogs, I hope.”

“I don’t own one,” Roy Tabak told his refrigerator, “but my folks adopted a greyhound named Chester when I was a kid. They said he was too old to race, but he was faster than a million-dollar microwave.”

“Clearly you observed him, sir. Because you did, you must have observed that this Chester employed the pronoun to which you objected when referring to your family and himself. He might have said we are going to the beach, for example.”

“You can’t take dogs to the beach,” Roy Tabak told his new refrigerator. “They’re not allowed.”

The telephone rang.

“Excuse me.” He rose and went into his living room. “Hello.”

“Roy, you dog! Who’s the fat broad?” It was Jerry Pitt from Gourmet Foods.

Roy Tabak tried to remember. That girl he had talked to in the Home Office, had she been fat? Not very, but his Aunt Irene’s daughters were all fat. “Probably a cousin,” he said.

“Sure. Just staying with you until she can get a job. I’ve got it.”

“Wait a minute.” Roy Tabak thought frantically. “I’ve got this new service, see. A—whatchacallum. An answering service. It’s better than an answering machine because mine keeps breaking. You phoned, right? And this girl answered. You probably tried to date her.”

“Roy, Roy, Roy! Come off it. Let’s get real.”

Yeah, Roy Tabak thought, wouldn’t I love to!

“I came over to your building, see?” Jerry sounded impatient. “And I rang the bell downstairs and somebody buzzed me in. So I went up to your place. Do I have to keep telling you?”

“Go ahead,” Roy Tabak said. “I’m listening.”

“I knocked and she answered the door. You probably told her not to, but she did it anyway. I said, ‘Where’s Roy?’ And she said you hadn’t come home yet and did I want to come in and wait for you? She said she’d get me a beer or some ice cream. I said, ‘No thanks and have a nice day,’ and I beat it.”

“Listen, Jerry, this is serious.”

“She’s married, huh?”

“There was really a woman in my apartment? You’re not shitting me?”

“Hell, no. You mean you don’t know about her? She was a burglar or something?”

“No, but it’s complicated. What did she look like?”

“Well … fat, like I said. Big and really heavy. She wouldn’t be bad looking if she lost a hundred and fifty pounds. Hell, she’s not all that bad now. Blond, blue eyes, sort of a square face, only fat cheeks, you know?”

“Yeah, I know. What else?”

“A white dress and a white apron. Sort of a gag necklace. One of those novelty necklaces. Little bottles, all different colors, strung together. Beer and Pepsi. I remember those.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Roy Tabak said.

“One was champagne—that was the big bottle in the middle. There was a red bottle, too. I think it must’ve been Tabasco sauce.”

Roy felt impatient, but tried not to sound like it. “How old would you say she was?”

“Twenty-five, maybe. She could have been younger, though. Great big chicks look older, you know?”

“Sure. Go on.”

“No rings. I looked for them, you know how you do.”

“Only she wanted you to come in for a beer, and you wouldn’t do it.”

“I got Deedee, you know? Besides, I’d never do a thing like that to you.”

Roy Tabak took a deep breath. “You said, ‘Hi, I’m Jerry Pitt and I’m a friend of Roy’s.’ Something like that?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“But she didn’t tell you her name?”

“Nope.”

“She told you something. What was it?”

“Nothing. She didn’t tell me anything.”

“Jerry, listen to me and listen real good. Are you listening, dumbfuck?”

“Hey, you don’t have to get rough.”

“I’d rather not, Jerry. But I work in Appliances and you work in Gourmet Foods. I’m lifting heavy stuff all day while you’re pushing cookies. What was her name?”

“I’ll tell you, Roy. Honest.”

“You’d better. What was it?”

“She never said her name, only she was wearing one of those little name pins like waitresses have on sometimes.”

“Keep talking, Jerry.”

“Well, I read what was on it. It said Frostfree. All one word. I used to know a guy named Frost once. Was it Ed? Wait a minute…”

“Don’t matter. Listen, I’ll call you back.”

“Earl! That was it. Earl Frost.”

“I’ll call you back,” Roy repeated, and hung up.

Returning to the kitchen, he straddled a chrome-and-plastic chair and sat, resting his arms on the back. “Do you still talk?”

“Yes, sir,” replied his new refrigerator.

“Good.” Thoughtfully, Roy Tabak loaded a last corn chip. “You’ve got a little plate on your freezer door. It says ‘Frostfree.’”

“Yes, sir. It indicates, correctly, that I need never be defrosted—this even though my freezer remains frigid at all times.”

“I know what it means. Jerry Pitt came over and rang the bell. You buzzed him in.” Roy tapped a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket, lit it, and inhaled. His new refrigerator remained silent. At last he said, “Why did you do that?”

“I hoped your caller might be a young woman, sir.”

“Did you now?”

“Yes, sir. I did.”

“You wanted some female company?” Roy blew smoke through his nose.

“For you, sir. It is my mission.”

“You want to fix me up.”

“Yes, sir. Precisely.”

More smoke. “That’s a whole lot to take on, for a refrigerator.”

“I’m acutely conscious of it, sir. May I explain? The WSPC has taken an interest in your case.”

Roy ground out his cigarette in the ashtray on the kitchen table. “I’m a case.”

“Yes, sir. That’s it exactly.”

“A mental case.”

“Oh, no, sir!”

“Let’s get back to Jerry. When he came to the door, a girl opened it. That girl was wearing the little plate from your door. She was wearing it, or one just like it. Was she from that outfit you mentioned?”

“The WSPC, sir? Yes, sir, she was—that is to say, I am. I belong to the foundation, sir. It is my owner.”

“That was you? You were the one who answered the door?”

“Yes, sir. Would you like another beer, sir?”

“Yeah.” Roy Tabak opened his new refrigerator and took out a longneck; its label read SUPER-URB. “If I drink enough of these, you may start to make sense.”

“I’m a very sensible machine, sir, well designed, solidly built, and useful. I will provide many years of service.”

“What about when you’re a girl? Are you still a sensible girl then?”

“Yes, sir. I am sensible in both forms.”

“You can change shape?”

“Transform, sir. Yes, sir, I can and do. May I explain?”

Roy Tabak nodded.

“I began, sir, as an effort of the appliance industry. You are familiar with the appliance industry.”

Roy nodded again. “Very.”

“It was desired, sir, to create a single appliance which would serve as both a refrigerator and a dishwasher.”

“That’s crazy!”

“No, sir. Only difficult. It was soon realized that my dishwashing mechanism could not be interior, sir. My interior must be kept cold at all times in order to preserve the just-harvested freshness of vegetables, for example.”

“I say that. I say ‘just-harvested freshness’ when I’m talking to customers. You’ve been listening to me.”

“Only a very little bit, sir. Hardly at all.” Roy’s new refrigerator spoke rapidly, apparently to prevent his protesting the change of subject. “Since the dishwashing function could not be internal, it would have to be external. Utilizing the transformer principle made external dishwashing possible and, indeed, successful. It was then suggested that we might serve as programmable stoves as well. That was found to be impractical, since an oven would have to be internal. However—”

“Wait up!” Roy Tabak sat straight. “You said you were a dishwasher, right? You’re a dishwasher, too?”

“I am, sir. It is my glory.”

“Well, my sink’s full of dirty dishes. Let’s see you wash them.”

“Although I hesitate to correct you, sir, your sink is no longer filled with dirty dishes. I washed them in your absence, sir.”

Roy rose and looked into his sink. It was empty and spotless.

“Your dishes are in that cabinet, sir. There was an abundance of shelf space, and I felt—”

“Sure.” Roy opened a cabinet door. “You reached up there and put them in?”

“I did, sir. It was the only way—or so it appeared to me. May I continue, sir?”

He nodded.

“The oven requirement decided the matter. We could not function as programmable stoves. We could, however, apply our programmability to stove functions, by this means rendering a programmable stove superfluous. When one of us is in your kitchen, any old collection of oven and burners will do.”

“You can cook?” Roy asked.

“No, sir. The stove cooks, at my direction.”

“You can wash dishes.”

“Yes, sir. I can. I do.”

“Good.” Roy held up the almost invisible container; it showed green streaks of guavacado. “I want you to wash this dish. Now.”

For a moment it seemed that nothing had happened. He blinked, and realized that his new refrigerator was more humanoid in appearance than he had realized. It began to rock gently, forward and back.

“That’s all right,” he said. “You don’t really have to.”

His new refrigerator was not listening. It had stopped rocking and was smoothing its immaculate white apron with plump, ringless fingers. “This will take me only a moment, sir.”

While Roy watched, an obese blonde in a white dress and a white apron carried the green-smeared refrigerator dish to his sink, washed it, and dried it. “Where should I store this, sir?”

“Anyplace you want to,” Roy Tabak told her. “My stove can cook things, right? Under your direction?”

“That is correct, sir.” The obese blonde put it in the cabinet with his dishes.

“I’m going to go out and cruise for chicks, but I’d like something to eat first.”

The obese blonde smiled. “I shall be delighted to prepare it, sir.”

“That’s good. What’s your name, by the way?”

“I have none, sir. My owners say Fridge, or something of the kind, for the most part.” The fat blonde hesitated. “If I may be entirely frank, sir…?”

Roy Tabak nodded.

“More often than not, no name is employed.”

He grinned, noticing the pin on her left breast. “Okay if I call you Frostfree?”

“Certainly, sir. I would treasure the appellation. It pertains to my mission in the most appropriate manner. You see, sir, the WSPC desires to free you—”

“Wait up. Can you cook and talk at the same time, Frostfree?”

“Certainly, sir. What would you like?”

“Whatever you’ve got in there. It looked like lots of chow.”

“My menu-planning software is at your service, sir. Would you care for some boeuf à la Bourguignonne? I begin by slicing the beef into small cubes—”

“How long would it take?”

“My beef is of excellent quality, sir. Quite tender. No longer than three and half hours at most.”

“I don’t have that much time. What’s fast and good?”

“Would you consider eggs Columbus, sir? I have both small tomatoes and green peppers.” Frostfree filled a saucepan as she spoke. “And eggs, of course. Very fresh eggs, if I may say so. Your meal will be ready in twenty minutes.”

“Sounds good. You were going to tell me about this outfit you work for.”

“The WSPC? I’ll be happy to, sir.” She put the saucepan on a burner and turned it on. “The World Society for the Prevention of Curses seeks to exterminate those noxious prayers, orisons, and invocations whenever they have occurred. In your case, sir—”

“I’ve been cursed.”

“Precisely, sir. I believe I saw your salt and pepper…”

“Right here.” Roy Tabak moved his arm. “Who did it?”

“I cannot say, sir. That information was not part of the download. I am to free you from the curse. Others will attend to the perpetrator.”

For half a minute or more, Roy Tabak considered that. “You asked me if I knew the appliance industry. Remember?”

Frostfree nodded. She had dropped a tomato into the boiling water in the saucepan, and was holding its head down.

“I am. Only I’ve never even heard of a refrigerator that could turn into a woman. Maybe all this is just a bad dream, the curse and everything. What do you think?”

“I think that this has been boiled long enough for me to slip the skin off,” Frostfree murmured. “Ah! There it goes.”

“You had your hand in the boiling water,” Roy Tabak remarked. “Didn’t it hurt?”

“No, sir. I am an appliance, sir.” Frostfree smiled. “I was built in the twenty-third century, sir. I am native to the year twenty-two ninety-one—it is when the WSPC purchased me. May I speak of your curse, sir? You’ve been avoiding the matter.”

“You can jump around in time?”

“No, sir. The Society dispatched me to this period, sir. It will return me to my own period in due course, I believe.”

“You believe?”

“Yes, sir. It is a matter of faith—but yes, I do.” As she spoke, Frostfree picked up a pepper.

“How many of those are you going to make?” Roy Tabak asked.

“Four, sir. I have two tomatoes and two peppers, and four seems to me a reasonable number.”

“I don’t eat more than two eggs, usually.”

“You have not tasted my eggs Columbus, sir.”

“I guess not.” Roy Tabak got out a fresh cigarette, examined it, and slipped it back into the pack. “Could you change back into a refrigerator so I could have another beer?”

“That is hardly necessary, sir.” Dropping her pepper into the boiling water, Frostfree turned to face him. Her apron swung aside, and the front of her dress with it. Reaching into herself, she took out a cold longneck and handed it to him.

“Did you just get thinner? I mean you’re still fat—I mean not really fat, but didn’t you lose a little bit of weight just now, maybe?”

She nodded. “The bottle you hold has been deducted from my gross mass. I take it that is what you meant.”

“Yeah. I guess so.”

“The World Society for the Prevention of Curses has been policing the past, sir. I was about to say so.” She dunked the pepper. “Hyperhistory records many effectual cursings, including yours. They have done incalculable harm. The present brightens as they are removed.”

“My present or your present?”

“Both, sir. Or so I would hope.” Frostfree sighed. “Normally, sir, some bold but warmhearted individual volunteers to visit the past and lift the curse. In your case, that proved impossible.”

“I still don’t believe I’m under a curse,” Roy Tabak said. “I don’t buy that part at all. If I’m under a curse why would somebody send me a refrigerator that turns into a woman who can cook?”

“It is the nature of your curse, sir.” Frostfree stripped the skin from the pepper. “Your curse limits you to coldhearted persons. No warmhearted person will find you tolerable.”

“People buy from me,” Roy Tabak declared, “and it’s not just refrigerators. I sell stoves, grills, mixers, all kinds of stuff, and I’m one of the most successful salesmen at the store. Ask anybody.”

“Coldhearted persons find you sympathetic, sir.” With a deft twist of Roy Tabak’s paring knife, Frostfree disposed of the seedy interior of a tomato. “There are a great many of them in this century.”

Roy nodded thoughtfully. “I’ve noticed that about my customers.”

“Thus I was sent. I—I like you, sir.”

He twisted the cap from his beer. “I like you, too, Frostfree.”

“Do you really, sir?” Smiling, she turned to face him. “As a refrigerator, I have no heart at all.”

“Naturally,” Roy Tabak agreed.

“While as a woman, my ice-cube trays perform the function, sir. They’re in my ice maker. They have the little chambers, you see, and they expand and contract. It’s exactly like your human heart, but colder.”

It was excellent beer, Roy decided. Aloud, he said, “It was one of my ex-girlfriends, wasn’t it? I think I could even guess which one.”

“I’m to find you a warmhearted young lady,” Frostfree told him. “If I can accomplish it, your curse will be broken. Will you please pass the pepper, sir? The pepper and the salt.”

It was shortly after ten when they strolled arm-in-arm into the Home Office Bar & Grill. “This is as good a spot as any,” Roy Tabak told Frostfree. “The real action won’t start until eleven or so, but it’s good to be a little early.” He leaned toward her, almost shouting to make himself heard. “Usually I sit at the bar, and it can be tough to get a seat there later.”

“We must have a table, sir,” she said as she sat down at one. “We must be seen together.”

He nodded, secretly glad that he had removed a head of cabbage and all of the remaining beer before they left. “Okay, here we are and everybody’s seeing us. Are you a good dancer?”

“No, sir. It might be better if we did not dance.”

Two blondes and a brunet came in, all talking at once.

“Do you like any of those, sir?” Frostfree leaned across the table.

“Yeah, Kay—that’s the brunet in the middle, only she turned me down flat last week.” A barmaid had appeared at Roy’s elbow, and he added, “What are you having, Frosty?”

“I haven’t decided.” Frostfree smiled at the barmaid. “What do you suggest?”

“Most people drink beer,” the barmaid told her. “We have Bud, Miller, Old Style, and a lot of foreign beers. Just about anything you want, really.”

Roy Tabak ordered a Miller Lite.

“Scotch and water might be nice,” Frostfree said.

Roy Tabak waited until the barmaid had gone before asking, “Can you really drink that?”

“I will drink it slowly, sir. I doubt that you will have to buy me another.”

“That’s not the point. You’re—” He choked it back. “I still don’t see how dating you is going to get me a girlfriend.”

“A warmhearted one, sir. One breaks curses, you see, by doing whatever the curse forbids. Let us suppose, for example, that a curse were to stipulate that you die before your twenty-first birthday.”

“I’m thirty-two already.”

“If you lived beyond your twenty-first birthday, the curse would be neutralized. Or let us say that your curse was in the form of a pig that followed you everywhere.”

“You’re really not all that stout.” Roy found he was shouting to make himself heard above “Gotta Shine.” “Anyhow, I like you.”

“If you could slip into an elevator and shut its doors before the pig could follow, the curse would be broken. That is an actual case from the eleventh century, although of course no elevator was involved. Our operative dropped a portcullis, I believe.”

Their drinks arrived. Frostfree sipped and smiled.

“You can taste things.”

“Of course. It’s difficult to cook when one cannot.” She sipped again. “Please give me fifty dollars, sir.”

“What?”

“Fifty dollars. I would think that would suffice. A fifty-dollar bill might be best, but two twenties and a ten should be acceptable.”

“You need the money.”

“Yes, sir. I do.”

“To get me a warmhearted girlfriend.”

“Yes, sir. I will not hire her, sir.”

Roy Tabak shrugged. “You can’t get much for fifty anyway.”

“It depends upon the thing bought, sir. Passing it to me beneath the table might be prudent.”

He did, and she rose. “I must attend to a call of nature.” Her lips brushed his forehead, cold and firm.

He was still trying to imagine what a refrigerator might do in the ladies’ room when she returned to their table. He raised an eyebrow. “Everything come out all right?”

“I believe so, sir. I emptied my drip pan, and my negotiations should be effectual.” She glanced to her left.

Their waitress and another were pushing through the throng of lookers and drinkers.

“It might be wisest if you said nothing, sir.”

Roy Tabak nodded.

The waitresses arrived, panting and pointing to Frostfree. “He said he couldn’t call you,” gasped the one who had served them.

The other added, “Your phone’s off. He said he’s dying!”

“He called here. He said you’d be here.”

Frostfree raised a hand. “Calm yourselves! The man is a hypochondriac, a faker. It probably isn’t serious at all.”

“But—”

“He just wants attention.” Frostfree sighed, her sigh visible but inaudible. “I suppose I have to go.”

“Yeah,” Roy put in. “Maybe you’d better.”

“You’re a darling.” Leaning over the table (in which something popped under the stress of her weight) she kissed him.

At the bar, Frostfree spoke urgently to Kay. Roy Tabak, watching and very much wishing he could overhear them, saw Kay nod reluctantly. A moment later, Kay and Frostfree turned to stare at him before resuming their conversation.

Before Frostfree had left, Kay rose, slipped through the crowd to Roy Tabak’s table, and sat. “Your friend told me about the awful thing that’s happened to you,” she said.

Roy nodded sadly without having the least idea what she was talking about.

“I don’t usually do this,” she said.

He stood as if to leave. “You don’t have to. Really you don’t.”

She stood, too. “Do you dance?”

“Sometimes,” he admitted, “but I’m not very good.”

“Just follow my lead, Roy.” Her smile was brightly encouraging. “Only do it, you know, in a man sort of way.”

“Like a mirror reflection.”

“That’s it. That’s it exactly.”

The truth was that he enjoyed dancing, and danced agilely with a good sense of rhythm. The crowded floor limited them both until the people gave way to watch. Kay’s smile widened and her hips rolled more wildly. He had thrown her high into the air and caught her before they sat down, and she had slid between his legs and spun like a top.

Hours later, in the kitchen of his apartment, she came across a lone uneaten egg. “This egg in the tomato—did you cook this, Roy?”

“For my supper, after I got home from work.” When she stared at him, he added, “Eggs Columbus is really pretty easy and a good way to bake eggs. I ate the other three.”

“An egg baked in a tomato, on toast…”

“Or a green pepper,” Roy Tabak told her. “I like those better. And you add butter, and salt and pepper.” He shrugged. “Other spices if you want them, or bread crumbs. It’s easy and quick.”

The brunet sat. “You cook. Eggs Columbus, you said. Just for you.”

Roy nodded.

“Can I have a cigarette?”

He found an unopened pack and gave it to her.

As she opened it, she murmured, “You know, you’re really quite a person.”

There was a butane lighter in the pocket of his robe. He used it to light her cigarette.

“You’re going to drive me home.”

He nodded.

“My roommate will be asleep, but she’ll wake up and want to know where I’ve been and everything we did.” Kay inhaled, blew smoke through her nostrils, and looked pleased. “I don’t know how much I’m going to tell her, but I certainly won’t tell everything.”

“Up to you,” Roy Tabak said.

“Yes.” Kay smiled. “You’re going to drive me, so you shouldn’t have another beer. I’d like one just the same. Maybe you’d like a Pepsi or something.”

Frostfree, who had apparently returned to his kitchen some time ago, had replaced the beer and the cabbage. Roy got Kay a cold beer and poured it into a spotless tulip glass before pouring a glass of milk for himself.

“That’s an interesting refrigerator you’ve got there,” Kay remarked. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

“That right there,” Roy Tabak told her in a tone that brooked no disagreement, “is the best damned refrigerator in the whole world.”

*   *   *

Much later, when he had finished his crepes, Roy Tabak said, “Kay, that’s her name. The brunet you sent over to talk to me.”

Frostfree, who had been washing dishes, turned to face him. “Yes, sir.”

“She’s a warmhearted person.”

“Yes, sir. She is, sir.”

“Warmhearted and loving. Affectionate. I’m not. I’m a coldhearted, lying son-of-a-bitch, and I know it. Also, I don’t make half as much as I’m worth, and I smoke. She already smokes a little, so we’ll smoke together.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I lied to her, and you lied to her to get her to come over and talk to me. We’re both liars.”

“No, sir. I explained that you are friendless man, not far from suicide and insanity, and that you had been terribly hurt by the actions of a woman you once loved. What I said was true, sir. Every word of it.”

“Okay.”

“I expressed myself persuasively and urgently, and explained that I was only an acquaintance of yours and that I was leaving. I asked her to stay with you for at least an hour, and she consented.”

Roy Tabak seemed not to have heard. “I lied to get her into the sack, and I lied afterward so she wouldn’t find out about you. That’s what I did, and now she’s mixed up with me. Is she under some sort of curse, like I was?”

“I cannot tell you, sir. I have no information upon the topic. It was not part of any download I received.”

Roy Tabak blew a thoughtful smoke ring and watched it float away. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I think so, too.”

 

Copyright © 2013 by William B. Fawcett