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If anybody had asked Gregor Demarkian if it mattered to him to feel he had someplace settled to live, he would probably have said no. Why should it matter to him? Being homeless would not be good, but he'd never been the kind of person to care about the messiness of his kitchen or the view from his balcony. At the moment, he didn't even have a balcony, and he didn't want one. He wasn't sure what he did want. Not being liable to trip over stacked carpet samples in the hallway might be one thing. Not to find bathroom tile samples in the bathtub might be another. The bathroom tile "samples" were actually bathroom tiles, big ones, in all kinds of colors. There had to be hundreds of different colors, sizes, shapes, and materials for bathroom tiles. It was insane.
It was six o'clock on the first Monday in September. Labor Day. Gregor had managed to wrestle the bathroom tiles out of the bathtub so that he could take his shower, and now he was standing at the big window in his living room that overlooked Cavanaugh Street. Upstairs, Grace Feinmann was practicing, the faint sound of the harpsichord rippling up and down scales. Out on the street, nothing much was happening. It was a holiday. Donna Moradanyan Donahue had put up a big mural of Thirties-era workmen with big muscles outside Holy Trinity Armenian Christian Church, sort of in honor of somebody named Glenn Beck.
"No, she isn't honoring Glenn Beck," Bennis had tried to explain, a week ago, when Donna was first out there putting things up and getting her son Tommy to hammer nails. "It's kind of a joke. Glenn Beck is the sort of person who sees Communists in his soup, or, you know—"
But Gregor didn't know. He hadn't known then, and he didn't know now. Glenn Beck was somebody on television. He had tried to catch Glenn Beck on television. He'd never managed it.
He walked away from the window and headed toward the kitchen. Ever since Bennis had discovered coffee bags, he'd been able to make his own coffee in the morning. This was a good thing, since it turned out that Bennis needed to do all kinds of things in the morning, and getting the coffee wasn't one of them.
He went through the swinging doors and found himself confronted by the kitchen table, which had cabinet façade samples stacked up on one side of it and handle samples stacked up on the other. Gregor was beginning to think you could put an entire house together from samples alone if you didn't care if things matched. He picked up one of the façade samples and looked at it. Then he picked up another. He was sure there were lots of differences between them. He just didn't understand why anybody would care. He really didn't understand why Bennis would care.
He filled the kettle and put it on to boil. He took a clean mug out of the cabinet and put a Folgers Coffee bag in it. He put the mug on the table between façades and handles. Then he took it off and put it back on the counter.
The Post-it Note with the information for today's meeting was stuck to the front of the refrigerator. It said: H. ANDROCOELHO, EIGHT. That was it. He had always been rather cavalier about the business part of what he did. He had a good pension from the Bureau and a solid wall of savings behind it. He didn't need to worry about the details as much as he might have. Still. It had gotten to the point where his professional life was like a poem by William Carlos Williams.
The kettle went off. He took it off the heat and poured water over the coffee bag. Bennis left her tea bags to steep for twenty minutes or more. If Gregor did that with a coffee bag, he'd have tachycardia in a minute and a half.
He looked at the handle samples again. Some of them were actually handles. Some of them were knobs. Some of them seemed to move. Some of them obviously didn't. How did anyone choose among all these things? Why would anyone want to put herself through this? Why not just let the contractor pick what he thought was practical and go with that?
Gregor came to again. He felt as if he were going in and out of fugue states. He took the coffee bag out of the coffee with a spoon. He threw the coffee bag into the garbage pail next to the sink. He wondered if, somewhere, Bennis had hundreds of samples of sinks that she'd gathered to look at before deciding which one would go into the kitchen of the new house.
Gregor took a sip of coffee. It didn't help. He took another sip of coffee. It still didn't help. He thought of H. Androcoelho, who was coming all the way out here from someplace in New York, on a holiday, to talk to him about something—and Gregor couldn't remember it.
Gregor took the coffee cup and went back through the living room and down the hall again, to the bathroom and the bedroom. Bennis was just coming out of the bath, wrapped in an enormous bathrobe, her wet hair falling down over her shoulders. The bathrobe was Gregor's bathrobe. Bennis had a dozen bathrobes of her own, including ones from special stores where everything cost as much as a small car, but she didn't wear them.
"Hey," she said, pushing the door to the bedroom open. "Are you okay? I left a note about your appointment on the refrigerator."
"I saw it. The kitchen table is full of—stuff."
"I know it's a pain, Gregor, but it's only for a little while. We should be into the new house by Thanksgiving. Or maybe Christmas. Anyway, it will be worth it when it's done. You'll see."
"I don't think I can go without sitting at my kitchen table for four months."
"I don't see why. It's not like we ever eat here. I mean, really eat. We go to the Ararat. You're going there now. There's something we can do in the new house. Or I can do. I can cook."
"Do you cook?"
"Well enough when I was living on my own," Bennis said. "I could get Donna to teach me. It's going to be a really spectacular kitchen."
"I'm going to go downstairs and see if old George wants to pick up Tibor with me," Gregor said. "I wish you'd made more notes about that appointment. Don't you think it's odd, this guy coming out on a holiday?"
Bennis was putting clothes out on the bed. All the underwear matched. Bennis's underwear always matched. That was something odd to know about her.
"He's the chief of police in wherever this is," Bennis said. "Maybe this was the only time he could get away. And it's not really all that far from here. It's just New York. Maybe two hours or so north? Can't be much more than that. I forgot the name of the town. It's an Indian name."
"All right. I'd still feel better if you or I remembered exactly what it was he wanted to talk to me about."
Bennis had the hairbrush in her hand. She put it down on the bed. "It's a cold case—a missing persons cold case, except just a little while ago the guy turned up dead. And there were complications, but I don't remember those, because there are always complications. If there weren't complications, they wouldn't come to you."
"Don't get all sigh-y on me, Gregor. I'm renovating an antique house and I've got a book due at the end of the month. Which is going to be late. And besides, I don't know. It's one of those things. It's been on television."
"Yes. Really, you've got to remember this. I told you. It was on one of those shows. Disappeared, that kind of thing. Or maybe it was only going to be on one. I'm sorry. The thing sounded garbled as hell to me when I took the call, and he said he'd come today, so I figured he'd tell you about it. He will tell you about it."
"He will," Gregor agreed. "I really am going to go down and see about old George. Are you coming out for breakfast?"
"Yes, and no," Bennis said. "I'm meeting Donna. I keep telling her I don't like wallpaper, I really much prefer paint, but she has some samples for me to see. She's going to bring them and then if I hate them she'll bring them back. I'll probably hate them."
"We don't have room in this apartment for wallpaper samples," Gregor said.
"Go see about old George. I don't like the way he's been looking lately. He looks like kindergarten paste."
"Go," Bennis said.
Outside on the landing, Grace's playing was clear, not exercises now, but a recognizable piece. Gregor thought she had to have her door open up there. She did that sometimes when she was sure everybody in the building was awake. Gregor didn't mind. Bennis didn't mind. Old George was too far away to be bothered by it if he didn't want to be.
Gregor thought about going upstairs for a minute and asking her what she was playing. Then he decided that would be rude. Grace was always rehearsing for something, and besides, she might think he was actually bothered by her playing and being polite about it. It never ceased to amaze him how complicated people were, in their relationships with each other. Here they were, empowered by speech, and they were always looking for clues and hints and signs and omens. Maybe that was why so many people loved things like The Da Vinci Code.
The landing was clear of debris of any kind, which made him feel better. He went downstairs a flight and found that that landing was not. There were two tall stacks of what appeared to be plumbing fixtures—the faucets for a bathroom, maybe, or for a kitchen. Some of the faucets were brass, so Gregor opted for a bathroom. Or maybe many bathrooms. There were a lot of bathrooms in the house he and Bennis had bought at the other end of the street.
"It'll be fine," Bennis had said when they did it. "We'll fix it up a little and then we'll be practically next door to Donna and Rush."
"Right now we're right across the street from Lida and Tibor."
"We're not exactly moving to California, Gregor. We're still going to be on Cavanaugh Street."
Gregor went down another flight, and that was the ground floor. He could see the line of mailboxes in the little vestibule between the inner and outer doors. He could see the rub of faded paint against the blank wall that was on the far side of the stairway. That was the problem with condominiums. You needed everything to go right, or they didn't get kept up.
He thought about that sentence for a moment, and then decided that he wasn't ever really awake until he had made it to the Ararat. Then he went around behind the stairs and knocked on old George Tekemanian's door.
"It's open," old George said.
Gregor pushed at it. It wasn't only not locked. It was not latched.
Old George was sitting up in the enormous leather lounger chair that took up the middle of his living room, pounding away on a laptop he had placed on a tray table. The laptop, the lounge chair, and the table—all the way across the living room—that the laptop was supposed to go on had all been given to him by his nephew Martin, and they were all so expensive, they looked like if you scratched them, they would bleed money.
Old George looked up as Gregor walked in.
"You shouldn't leave your door unlocked like that," Gregor said. "I keep telling you, you only think it's perfectly safe here."
"It's perfectly safe here, Gregor. Nothing ever happens on Cavanaugh Street, except when Sheila Kashinian has one of her fits and throws Howard out into the street, and then he goes over to the church and wants Father Tibor to give sermons on the sanctity of Christian marriage. I remember Howard Kashinian when he was a boy, just like I remember you. He was an idiot even then."
Gregor went around to the side of the chair and took a look at the screen of the laptop. Old George was on Facebook.
"What's ‘Mafia Wars'?" Gregor said.
"Tcha," old George said. "You really have to keep up with the times. It's a game. I can go all day on games, lately. That's what happens when you get old. You drift."
"You're been drifting lately?"
"I think I've been bored," old George said. "It's all well and good for people to tell you you ought to keep busy, but the fact is you get to where your knees don't really work right. Then what do you do? I'm not going into one of those nursing homes Angela keeps talking about."
Angela was old George's nephew Martin's wife.
"I didn't know you and Angela were still fighting about nursing homes."
"She doesn't call them nursing homes," old George said. "She calls them ‘assisted living facilities.' That's really what she calls them. Can you believe that?"
"I think she's only worried about your being here on your own."
"I've been here on my own since Maria died. Well, all right, Gregor, not in this apartment. I appreciate the apartment. I tell Martin that all the time. I appreciate all the things. I don't know what I did with myself before I got on the Internet."
"You balled socks in the mechanical sock baller and shot them across the room," Gregor said. "You broke lamps. I was here."
"I've got better aim now," old George said. "I wish everybody would just stop worrying about me. I can't see myself moving out to live with Martin and Angela, either. They're very nice, Gregor, but they've got small children. Family is a wonderful thing. But it ought to live in its own house."
"There was all that about Sophie Mgrdchian," Gregor said. "That wasn't even that long ago. She'd been living on her own, too."
Old George did something decisive on the keyboard and then began to shut the computer down. "Sophie Mgrdchian," he said, "was a damned fool. And I knew her since she was a child, too. We were children together. Well, no, all right, she was a child and I was, what do you call it these days. I was a teenager. But you know what I mean. She was always a damned fool. I'm not about to let somebody I don't even recognize come in here and stay in my house."
"That isn't what she did," Gregor said, but he could see it was time to give it up. "Tibor is going to meet us there this morning. He's got something or the other to do, I don't remember what. He's probably on Facebook."
"I'm on Facebook, Father Tibor is on Facebook, Bennis is on Facebook. You're not on Facebook, Gregor. You should do something about it. Social networking is a very good thing. At least it keeps you from being bored."
"I'm too busy trying to launch the space shuttle from my phone," Gregor said. "Do you want a coat? I know it's only the beginning of September, but it gets chilly in the mornings sometimes."
"Stop fussing about me," old George said. "Everybody fusses about me. It's Labor Day. It isn't raining. I'll be fine. Give me a minute to put this away."
Gregor gave him a minute. Martin and Angela had bought old George this apartment. They paid for a maid service to come in and clean twice a week. The place was spotless, but it looked oddly blank and impersonal. There was something different.
Old George came out from the back, carrying his wallet.
"I know what it is," Gregor said. "I know what's wrong with this room. You moved all the pictures."
"I didn't move them, Gregor. I put them away."
"All your pictures of Maria? And of Stepan before he died? All of them? Why?"
"I gave the pictures of Stepan to Martin," old George said. "He doesn't have a lot of pictures of his father. I gave him the old home movie film, too. He's having it converted to DVDs. Did you know they could do that?"
"Yes," Gregor said. "Bennis thinks you don't look well. Is she right? You look fine to me, but if there's something wrong—"
"There is nothing wrong, Gregor, except that I'm hungry, and at the rate you're going, we're never going to get to the Ararat."
Fr. Tibor Kasparian was already at the Ararat when they got there, hunched down on the window booth that was supposed to best resemble the way a restaurant table would be in Yerevan. Gregor doubted this. He didn't doubt that his Armenian ancestors had eaten in restaurants, and probably in their homes, by sitting nearly on the floor with their legs folded up underneath them. He did doubt that they were still doing it even in 1965, never mind all this time later, when Armenia was free and there was probably a McDonald's where the old family tavern used to be.
He let old George slide down the low bench first and then slid in after him. Father Tibor had coffee already, and there were places set out for all of them, but none for Bennis. Linda Melajian probably knew before they did who would be sitting at this table every morning.
"Bennis is the one not coming?" Tibor said.
"She's coming, she's just meeting Donna," Gregor said. "Something about the house. I'm learning all kinds of things about houses. Did you know there were over five hundred different varieties of bathroom tile?"
"I knew there were a lot, Krekor, yes," Father Tibor said. "They rebuilt my apartment, you remember when it was destroyed with the church. They were always coming over asking me what I wanted to have. I never knew what to say. I didn't care which one I had, as long as it was serviceable."
"They built bookshelves," old George said. "I remember that. They wanted you to put all your books on bookshelves."
"It would take the entire Philadelphia library system," Gregor said. "I don't know if you've been over there lately. He's got them stacked to the ceiling in the dining room."
"And the apartment upstairs is still empty," Tibor said. "I told them we would never get an assistant. There aren't enough priests in this country to serve the churches we have, and we can't always get somebody from Armenia. And it doesn't always work out."
"You're from Armenia," Gregor pointed out.
"Yes, Krekor, I know. But I wasn't sitting in Armenia and happy there when they wanted a priest over here. I came over on my own, because I wanted to. I lived in New York for years before I got a church. These men come here, they're used to there, and all the children now, they're third and fourth generation. They haven't got the patience. And I don't blame them."
"Father Tibor is standing up for the younger generation again," old George said.
"Tcha," Tibor said. "What would you think if you were an eighteen-year-old American girl, and you had some priest with an accent telling you you were going to go to hell because you didn't let your parents pick your husband? Never mind that the parents aren't interested in picking the husband. It's a mess."
"I'm going to have an American omelet," old George said. "The one with ham and cheese in it."
"A Western omelet," Tibor said.
"Say what you want," old George said. "I didn't try to pick a wife for Stepan, and he did fine on his own. And I called him Steve as soon as he wanted me to."
"All my teachers in school used to call me Gregory," Gregor said. "It used to drive me crazy. It happened in the Bureau, too. Is Linda actually around here anywhere?"
Gregor turned around and looked across the restaurant. It was slowly beginning to fill up. Almost nobody on the street cooked anymore, unless they were having a party or family was coming. Lida Arkmanian was sitting with Hannah Krekorian and Sheila Kashinian. Lida and Sheila had on their chinchilla coats—end of summer, muggy hot weather be damned.
The doors to the back opened then, and Linda Melajian came in, carrying the coffeepot in one hand. She breezed by at least four tables that wanted her attention and came over to them, flipping the coffee cups upright with her free hand.
"George will have a Western omelet, and Bennis is eating with Donna, so Gregor will have scrambled eggs with bacon and sausages and hash browns, plus buttered toast and nine-one-one on speed dial," she said. "How am I doing?"
"Perfectly," Gregor said. "But Bennis is going to be here, even if it's at another table, so maybe I ought to tone it down a little."
"Do what you want," Linda said. "But Bennis is picking Donna up at Donna's, and you know what that's going to be like. They won't be here for an hour. I'm supposed to tell you that hardwood floors are better in the master bedroom than a carpet is, and you can always buy an Oriental rug."
"Bennis told you to talk to me about hardwood floors in the master bedroom?" Gregor said.
"No," Linda said, "Lida did. She was talking to Bennis about it yesterday, I think. Really, Gregor, I don't see the point. Do you? I mean, there isn't really a master bedroom in that place, not like there would be in a modern house, with a bathroom and walk-in closets—"
"There will be by the time Bennis gets through with it," old George said.
"You know what I mean," Linda said. "Let me go get you your food and find out what everybody else wants. There was some guy in here at opening, he was standing right outside the door when I came to unlock it. Anyway, he's looking for Gregor."
"Is he here now?" Gregor asked.
"Nope," Linda said. "He said he'd be back later. I've got no idea where he went. There isn't anything open around here at a quarter to six in the morning, and it's not like he could go home. I saw his car. It had New York plates."
"That will be your appointment," old George said. "Bennis said he was from New York."
"He's also not supposed to be here until eight," Gregor said.
"Whatever," Linda said. "He's probably around somewhere, wandering into bad neighborhoods and getting mugged. Not that he's the kind of person you'd think would get mugged. He's absolutely enormous. Taller than Gregor even. And he's fat. I don't know. Maybe they'd mug a fat guy. They don't usually like tall, though."
"‘They' is muggers?" Gregor asked.
"Exactly," Linda said. "But there's the fat, and then there's the—I don't know. Aura. He was the most nervous person I've ever seen. He practically jumped out of his skin when I came up behind him. And he had a briefcase. One of the old-fashioned floppy kinds with straps that you buckle like a belt."
"This is supposed to make him more likely to be mugged?" Father Tibor said. "You're not making any sense."
"I didn't say I was making any sense," Linda said. "I was just telling you what I saw. Anyway, I put a RESERVED sign on one of the bigger tables against the wall. Anybody with a briefcase as big as that is going to have to have some room to spread out. I'll go get everybody's food. Have the sausages, Gregor. Bennis won't be here anytime soon. Maybe I'll accidentally hit Sheila Kashinian on the head with the coffeepot when I get there. Honestly, if that woman wants to know the calories of anything else ever again, I'm going to slit her throat."
"She's waving at you," Gregor pointed out.
"She waves at me every twenty seconds," Linda said. Then she straightened up a little. "There he is. The guy from this morning. He's just coming through the door."
Gregor, Tibor, and old George all looked up at once. There was indeed a strange man coming through the door. He was strange in the sense of not belonging to Cavanaugh Street, and strange in the sense of being very odd looking.
Linda had been right about the size. The man was very, very fat, but the first thing you noticed was the height. Gregor was almost six foot four himself. This man had to be closer to six eight. He was holding the briefcase up to his chest, keeping his arms clapped across it as if he were carrying nitroglycerin. He looked around the restaurant and then around again. Gregor thought his head was moving too quickly to actually see anything.
Then the man caught sight of Gregor, and the air came out of him as if somebody had punctured his tire.
He practically ran to the window booth and held out his hand.
"Mr. Demarkian?" he said. "I'm Howard Androcoelho."
Copyright © 2011 by Orania Papazoglou