The Empath, by Jim Schoen
Tall and visibly strong – startlingly pretty – it was the Scandinavian blue of the woman’s eyes that loosed Peter Day from his host, lifting him up and out, causing Norman Neilson to falter as he remembered: “Dentist! Dr. Berani! How could I have –“
While Norman Neilson stood gaping at his watch, Peter Day whispered across on the cool, blue conduit of the woman’s gaze. Gliding down and in with the sleek stealth of a dolphin turning a slow in a deep blue somersault, he cruised the plush fit of her around him. Astonishing, really, as Norman and most of the others had been, each in their way. Plush, however, was a first, or even Lush; better still.
His arrival produced little more than a stutter-step in the lithe thoroughbred gait. It earned the woman’s three-inch heels an sharp, accusatory glance while she fired this thought like a hot barb: “More than one reason they call ‘em Come Fuck Me Pumps…”
Pushing through the door to the restaurant ahead – a fine a restaurant, by the smells that assaulted them at once, from every direction – she glanced at a small man wearing a black vest over an immaculate white shirt, and just picking up a menu. When she raised a finger, mouthed, “One,” the man smiled in welcome, beckoned for them to follow.
Peter Day counted eyes in the early lunchtime crowd, stopped at twenty three; some guy with an eye patch trying to look through it out of something no longer there. A few of the women pretended not to stare. “Why,” Peter wondered, “do I feel suddenly smug?”
The maître d had only just seated them when the woman’s cell phone rang. Slipping the phone from her coat pocket, she opened it with the finesse of a Jack roller weilding a spring-knife, raised it to her ear. “One minute.” Retiring the cell phone to the table top, removing eye glasses and a pen from a pocket of her purse and fitting the glasses on, she winced as she remembered that she had left her pocket notepad in the car, then quickly took two business cards from one sleeve of her purse and dealt them onto the table, one up, one down.
Peter wanted to say “Hit me,” like Danny Devito in “’Cuckoo’s Nest’”. Instead, he kept silent. About his condition, there was still a lot he didn’t know. What he did know, by the smells wafting around him from every direction, was that the wait would be worth it; smells of roasted meats and freshly baked breads and pies, smells of sauces simmering under lids in large stainless steel pots, and –
The woman had picked up the phone again. She had removed the cover from her pen, and held it poised now above one of the business cards.
“Lorraine? Nice to meet you, Lorraine, Peter Day thought, while Lorraine did her best to dispel the image of a fat, sweating man in an ill-fitting polyester suit trying to wrench his hand free from where she had trapped it, painfully, between her powerful thighs.
The man barked instructions; Lorraine betrayed no hint of her irritation at his peremptory tone. She smiled instead, writing quickly and with ease, in microscopic shorthand: Cass Depo, host wit, conf alch inv, drg use. – cmplnant wpn?
Across the card left face-up inches from her left hand, Peter read the legend, Fischer, Gilfruend and Tschump, Attorneys at law. Cool! A lawyer!
Through the phone the voice asked, “When will you finish?”
Lorraine glanced down at her watch, said, “When I finish, I expect, Arthur,” feeding it right back to this Arthur guy. “And you’ll probably be late; all those paralegals and secretaries to harass.” She said, “You ever think of just asking a woman out on a date, Art, like maybe dinner and a movie? I mean instead of cutting right to sexual assault?”
Lorraine smiled as Art broke the connection
Peter loved it, loved Lorraine, recalled to the lean, well-muscled fit of her around him. Although, she really could use a few pounds. A large, leisurely lunch would be just the thing. Maybe a loaf of onion rings like the one just delivered to the four-top on their left, and a cold glass of beer while they perused the menu, picking and choosing. A lovely word: “Pe-ruse”.
A horse, in Peter’s opinion, would make a fine appetizer, with several warm baguettes to tear chunks off of and sauces for dipping; and for an entrée, a truckload of their Sweet Potato fries, crisp, accompanied by a couple of roasted buffalo on a big-ass toasted hoagie!
He waited, silent, grinning wildly inside while Lorraine looked over the menu, looked it over fast, maybe speed-reading. She was a lawyer after all.
The waiter appeared. “Can I get you something from the bar?”
Lorraine looked around as she thought about it again, glanced at a man in a shoddy suit stuffing money into his pants pocket as he got up from his table, and then spoke. Peter was sure he had misunderstood. Then Lorraine slapped the menu closed and handed it up with this pronouncement: “Also, a green salad, no dressing, with Melba toast.”
Melba toast? A green salad? Mineral Water! Huh? What?
When the salad came, in short order – a few threads of shredded carrots and cheese and a see-through slice of tomato, beneath which lay, plainly visible, a mound of lettuce leaves that wouldn’t fill a chicken’s palm, Lorraine dug right in. Peter noticed that the lettuce was fresh, crisp; the threads of carrot were surprisingly sweet, the orange cheese sharp and flavorful.
It occurred to him that Lorraine was not a smoker.
The salad was good, but not so good as to keep him from dreaming about the Big Burger pictured just inside the cover of the menu. He would have ordered it pink and steaming in the middle, topped with a slab of raw onions, and served on black rye.
Lorraine chewed, swallowed. She lifted her glass and drank. With Peter’s first-ever taste of mineral water, two words came to mind. Lorraine mouthed them after him, holding the bottle up to look, wondering as she did where such a thought had come from. But there it was: Moth Piss?
She thought about a cold beer.
“A cold beer,” Peter nudged, “would be good, Lorraine. Better still, a dry martini, Tanqueray; served with a warm baguette and cold butter.”
Instead, Lorraine shrugged and drank some more of the moth piss, stabbed another forkful of greens and put them in their mouth. Peter Day dutifully chewed.
On the appropriate finger of her left hand, Lorraine wore a heavy gold wedding band, her Ogre Deterrent, an instrument which, Peter gathered, had proven useful more than a few times, once, if he had deciphered Lorraine’s thought correctly, across the bridge of Arthur’s nose. While she ate, reviewing strategies for a case she was preparing for trial by one of the senior lawyers in their firm, she worried the ring continually with the thumb of the same hand. Peter tried to ignore this as he attempted to follow the details of the case. Even more distracting was Lorraine’s horrendous taste in food. When the waiter approached to ask if she would like dessert, Peter was astonished to hear her thinking, “Rye Crisp…”
His relief when she pinched her mouth to answer, “No, no desert,” was such that he nearly laughed out loud. He had yet to attempt such a thing as laughter from another’s interior, and was not even sure this was possible. In his limited experience, many things were not. Once inside, if he survived the sudden rush of information – like trying to swim your way up through an avalanche – the rules changed.
Once inside, he was nothing less than a hostage to the whims of his host.
“Lay low and flow. Mind your manners, Bud, and eat your Rye Crisp. It’s their dance, man. Lettum lead.
Probing with their tongue at the greens stuck between Lorraine’s teeth, Peter Day was seriously considering the boogie option, attentive to Lorraine’s glances out the windows to the street, checking out customers wherever Lorraine happened to glance. He had never been a ‘raw-greens and-mineral-water kind of guy. The only prod came from the dude – a new dude – standing now behind the cash register; not Peter’s kind of prod but maybe Lorraine’s.
After a little trouble with the bogus wedding band, while they gnawed the last of their rabbit food, twisting and rocking the ring from side to side, then back and forth, Lorraine dropped the ingot into her purse. Rising out of her chair with the faintest of smiles, picking up the bill from the table, she approached the counter, looking the man over like a chef scrutinizing a side of beef for the tender cuts, a working girl all of a sudden, planning her menu.
Real practical, this Lorraine.
The new guy was tall and dark, lean as a Whippet Hound; Italian was Peter’s guess. He stood to one side of the counter in a good set of threads, maybe a couple inches taller than Lorraine, a fairly tall drink herself. He was strong-boned, with sleek olive skin, his glossy dark hair a match to his eyes. The kind of guy who shaves twice a day and still tears up a pillowcase. He had a dangerous look to him, but it was a pleasant, inviting smile with which he greeted Lorraine, one of the well-heeled hungry, the guy casual in his rolled back shirtsleeves, with one hand loose in the pocket of his pleated tan dress pants. When someone spoke to him from a rear passageway to the kitchen, he bent from sight behind the counter, and then straightened again to toss a packet of something back to the speaker just as they arrived.
Lorraine laid the tray with the bill and her money on it on the counter. She had already calculated the tip, but forgot it at once when the man turned to her at point-blank range with the full force of his smile.
Lorraine caught her breath; she nearly sighed out loud.
“Did you enjoy your meal?” the man asked.
What, I look like a hamster to you? Peter wanted to say. But Lorraine was still with the eyes; thinking, “Hi, it’s wonderful to meet you, Mr. Handsome Guy.”
“Yes,” Lorraine managed, finally. “Yes, I did.”
The guy picked up her check and began punching buttons on the cash register, making small noises in his throat. When he had finished, he looked up at her and smiled, and began counting out her change with slight whispering touches of his fingers along the edges of their palm. Peter felt his nipples harden. Actually, they were Lorraine’s nipples, weren’t they. Pretty cool.
A palm-size square of paper with torn ends appeared on the counter and the handsome guy slid a pen across to her, held it down as if it might try to escape. “If you would like to register for our drawing…”
Lorraine frowned and cocked her head to one side, returning; evidently Venus was just a hop, skip and a jump. “What drawing is that?”
“The winner gets lunch – or dinner,” he said. The name on his golf shirt read “Silvio”.
Lorraine smirked, smelling a con. Good for her. “Big drawing?” she asked. “I don’t usually do this kinda stuff.”
“This big,” said Silvio, lifting seven or eight lollipops out of a small blue-enameled cup by their little heads. He tipped the cup at an angle, showing her the inside; empty. “We put them all in there. End of the contest we draw the Grand Prize winner.”
Grand Prize Winner!
Her smile was close and pushing, but Lorraine kept her game face on. Peter found himself admiring her stubbornness. “How long,” she asked, “before the drawing?”
Silvio glanced down at his watch, a cheap working man’s Timex with deep scratches on the lens and splashes of what looked like plaster on the scuffed leather band. “Any minute now,” he said, pretty much sealing the deal, in Peter’s mind. Lorraine, no dummy, a lawyer, for chrissake, had surely dealt with his kind before. The guy was a lech. And if not a lech, definitely one or another species of dirtbag.
Lorraine “Hm-mmed” under her breath, wondering if she could fill out the sheet without putting on her glasses. She didn’t always care for the look of her glasses. She would have preferred not to wear them at all. Another glance at the man, a prolonged and even winsome glance, and she drew the square of paper to the edge of the counter, picked up the pen.
Peter did what he could, hastily, and managed to inject a tremor here, another there, while Lorraine wrote, well, by rote. There was no better way to describe what he was witnessing. Up close, without the glasses for reading or writing, Lorraine was blind as a blueberry muffin.
“Okay,” said the man, brightly, then glancing down at the sheet and getting this look as if he’d just swallowed the gob somebody had spit in his coffee. No way was he going to put on his glasses with the woman standing right there and try to read what she had written. He didn’t always care for the look of his glasses. What he was looking at without them, though, looked like the footwork of a drunken chicken doing the Mambo.
“Okay,” he said again, grinning wide as he extended his hand, making the best of a tricky situation. “I am Silvio.”
Yeah, right, Peter thought. “Tell the truth, Larry.” He was sorely tempted to intrude here. Lean in close and, speaking softly in his own voice, tell him – what? “Silvio, you have made me wet!”
Jar the guy.
Instead, Lorraine took the offered hand, answering, “Lorraine. So, what are my chances, you think?”
Peter wanted to laugh. What she had produced on the small square of paper, with his help, looked to be a good day’s work for an Egyptologist. Wasted work.
An extra little squeeze from Silvio now, a profoundly meaningful squeeze, and he gave a small bow of his head. “Excellent, Louise! Your chances are excellent!
And yours, Peter Day thought, as Lorraine loosed maybe 3 smile-watts of the 100 she’d been holding caged – yours, Silvia, are now zip, zilch, nada!
He was happy as a cat in a hay mow to get out of there and breathe a couple lungfuls of hormone-free pollution. Even stepping out to witness the alarming sight of a pedestrian turned into Marigold mulch by a speeding bus hardly dampened his spirits. Not nearly as much, anyway, as it dampened the pedestrian’s.
Nothing like a wreck, though, to hearken a person back to his own less-than-stupendous state of health. The last he had seen of himself had been a glimpse from up around a fluorescent ceiling light looking down a guy who had been seriously rearranged by a pissed-off rodeo bull. Or maybe it was the hang gliding encounter with the fighter jet, from drowsy tortoise speed with fluffy clouds floating past to mach-I in less time than it takes to spit on your shirt.
In fact, he was not really clear on any of it. His memory of how he had arrived in his current circumstances, however vivid, changed almost by the hour. Whatever had happened, he had been on the road ever since. Somebody would tell him, he supposed – or maybe not – when the show was over.
For right now, though – while citizens converged from every direction on the site of the man-bus mauling, hauling out their cell phones and their digital cameras, everybody speed-dialing dozens of their friends to assure that nobody talked to anybody any time soon – for right now, Peter Day wanted out.
No offense to Lorraine, but he was hungrier now than when they’d gone into the restaurant! For meat, drink, definitely a smoke, and, if he encountered a couple that looked anything like amorous – maybe a little –
His thought was interrupted as Lorraine dodged into the street, and then darted across toward the lot where she had left her car, already fishing in her coat pocket for the parking stub. They only just glimpsed the ambulance, the driver’s mouth and eyes sprung wide, before Peter leaped up and out, tucking and rolling, then rolling again to land with the driver’s right foot jamming the brake pedal, the man’s terrifically uneven teeth clenched in a grimace, while heavy fists hauled the steering wheel hard right and then left again. He glimpsed Lorraine side-stepping the heavy bumper as it shuddered past, an instant before the ambulance slammed into the back of the bus that had just run over a man.
Slowly, Vinnie leaned back from the steering wheel and turned so that Peter was looking straight on at the man in the passenger seat. Vinnie raised both hands to his face and said, “Thik I broke by dose, George.”
Peter thought so, too. Vinnie’s nose hurt like hell. His whole face hurt. Peter did a little side-slipping – a good time, with both of them thoroughly stunned – and felt better at once. George hadn’t hit the steering wheel. George didn’t hurt. George said to Vinnie, “We’re okay, man. Just sit tight.” And unhooking the radio from the clasp on his hip, he started talking into it, looking around as he did.
No shortage of gawkers, Peter thought. And then: “Nuffa this.”
With everyone looking their way, he had his choice. He picked the nearest pedestrian as the man glanced over, looping up and out, then down and into the guy as he turned away with a disconsolate grunt and continued on, chugging along on auto-pilot, jigging and jagging through the gawkers; enough to make a guy carsick.
They were nearly to the curb when they spotted the balding man with no waistline just stepping down off the curb, his eyes buried in a folded newspaper as he crossed the street back the way they had just come.
“Guy with some appetite,” is what Peter instantly thought. “A meat-eater for sure! And if the veins in his cheeks –“
Peter made the switch as the man glanced over to dodge around them. No more than a grunt at his intrusion, the guy thinking maybe his gas was back. And it seemed that it was. Farting explosively amidst the bodies passing in both directions around then, the man shoved the newspaper under his arm, his thoughts turning to a lunch menu he knew by heart.
“Hmm, for starters –“
Peter liked this man’s thinking right away. Half a bale of those crispy onion rings, the Big Burger, medium, and while he’s waiting, a ‘Stoli’ martini!
They turned in at the restaurant that he and Lorraine had just left, and Silvio, smiling wide, emerged from behind the counter to greet them with outstretched hands. “Tommy, how are you today?”
Tommy was okay, not as mobile or as lithe as Peter was accustomed to in a host, but very evidently enjoying his anticipation of good food and drink. He stood before the counter tapping one foot while Silvio lifted a menu out of the bracket and said, “This way, Tommy. I got a nice table for you.”
After Silvio had seated them at a table and confirmed his customary drink order, Tommy turned to the window, then instantly looked away as a filthy, bearded wraith of a man tottered into view grinning and yammering and waving his hands. Right on time, Silvio arrived with his martini. Tommy picked it out of his hand and drank half of it down.
“Already coming, Tommy,” Silvio said, snapping two fingers at a passing waiter, moving off.
The worst thing, Tommy was thinking, was smelling the bum through the plate glass window, a ghost- smell thoroughly entrenched from the last years of his father’s life.
Peter thought, “Whoa! Let’s have us a nice lunch here, hey, Tommy! Finish our drink! Whatayasay?”
Tommy shook his head in adamant agreement, and muttered “Yeah, fuck that,” and drank another generous portion of his martini.
Peter couldn’t help but agree. But Tommy’s little damning, black recollection got him to wondering again if he wasn’t maybe lying in a coma in a hospital somewhere, dreaming; dreaming and waiting.
Waiting through his visitation with a seventeen-year-old girl named Tina May, known to her clientele as “Lacy”; a girl who could no longer remember enjoying her work, and was now mostly afraid.
A little hop-skotching, as he’d explored the boundaries of his new incarnation, and he had met Frank. Employed by a large company for his skill with numbers, Frank, since his discovery that his wife was having an affair, had begun leaving the number three out of his computations.
Nearly everybody he encountered was somehow broken, broken but living on, doing their best, or just doing. Even where there was pleasure, where there was genuine happiness, somewhere deep there was serious pain-management going on too, a wound dully throbbing in the dark.
Richard liked fishing, which irritated Ricky to no end, because Ricky didn’t like fishing at all. Richard was sure that this was why Ricky always tried to put on the outfit he had planned to wear that morning even before Richard had awakened, why Ricky always tried to take his seat on the city bus. Also, Ricky used his toothbrush, which he had repeatedly asked him not to do. Still, Richard would go to brush his teeth and find his toothbrush already wet!
About Richard, Peter had learned all of this in a single bus ride across town, Richard reviewing his complaints silently, trying to keep his inside voice down, and Ricky, as usual, coming back at full volume to let the whole world know their business. Then Richard had popped one of his new pills. And when Ricky had gone away, which usually took only a very short while with the new pills, Richard had returned, once more calmed and smiling, to his thoughts of fishing.
“Broken,” Peter thought, while Tommy tore a large piece from one of the breadsticks his waiter had brought, screwed the steaming end into a butter pat, and stuck it in his mouth. Tommy chewed, announcing his pleasure with small groaning noises of satisfaction. When he turned toward Silvio with his glass upraised, Peter glimpsed the blue enameled cup on the counter, the edges of a couple more pieces of paper sticking up above the rim. Tommy grinned as the waiter came with his drink.
And Peter thought: “S’not so bad. Good food and drink. Hang out afterwards and go home with old Silvio, maybe get a little!”
“Yeah? You think? You ready to try that again?”
It was probably the weirdest part of an experience already terrifically weird: ‘getting a little’ with somebody else’s business. But he could almost taste the cigarette they would smoke afterwards.
“Almost,” Peter thought. Just as he could almost taste the terrific food and drink, almost feel the smoke from the cigarette funneling down into his lungs, almost enjoy getting up close and personal with a woman again…
Talk about Safe Sex! Was there anything safer than sex by proxy!
The butter pats were cold, the broken ends of the bread sticks hot enough to quickly melt them; good bread Peter could tell by the effort required to chew it. But whether salty or sweet, or delicately sharpened in flavor with a hint of cracked pepper, or maybe –
Or maybe nothing. As with most things now, the subtler sensory details remained a step removed; and no longer just a step, but fading further, it seemed, at every opportunity when he anticipated experiencing them again in full. He wondered if a person might die twice…
They continued eating and drinking, half the breadsticks gone, Tommy working diligently now on his fourth martini, and making those small, contented mewling noises as he chewed while staring at the banner hung above the open double doors to a private dining area at the back of the room. The first part of the banner read: HAPPY BIRTHDAY. The end of the banner, where, presumably, the name of the birthday person would appear, was obscured from their angle of vision by a large potted tree growing beside the archway.
All at once a young boy tumbled out of the doors and fell. From behind him, inside the room, a woman cried out, “Andrew! Andrew, are you alright?”
But Andrew was already up again, frowning as he felt through the soft vinyl case shaped like half the webbed end of a tennis racket at the thing inside. His tongue prodded at one corner of his mouth as he squinted his eyes and found the zipper and tugged it back around to lay the case open.
“No running, Andrew! You hear me?” she said. “And go straight there!”
Peter knew at once where “There” was. “There” was the creek that passed behind Silvio’s on its way to the river half a mile east in the city. He knew this because, between Tommy’s sips of his martini – sips now because he still had work to do; his day was far from over – Tommy remembered, however faintly, childhood days spent playing along the banks of that creek. Peter had similar memories, considerably more intense, absent the effects of the Martini’s that were kicking Tommy’s ass, but not his; he no longer had an ass, did he. He even recognized the birthday present young Andrew had opened so carefully to see if he had broken it.
“’Kay,” Young Andrew called back, his tongue prodding the corner of his mouth again as he zipped the half-moon vinyl case closed again on his brand new Pocket Fisherman. His eyes fairly sparked with excitement. Peter willed Tommy not to look away. He wasn’t sure simply ‘willing’ worked, but in this case it did. He willed Tommy to grunt or cough – something. Tommy belched loudly, and the boy glanced over. Smiling wide, he held out his new Pocket Fisherman to show them – See! – then hurried past, now with Peter in tow.
Inside, Andrew was all tender glistening, and the hot, nearly unbearable glow of youthful anticipation. Andrew was fresh and new, and unwounded. The only interior sounds were the thrumming of his excitement. And then:
“-Everything I need! Hook, line, a pole! The Pocket Fisherman Pole! Just dig up a worm is all!
Just dig up a worm!”
It seemed to Peter Day a fine place to begin again, and – if he had to, if he absolutely must – a fine place to end.
He ran with young Andrew out the door.
Born ninth in the dozen of us, Jim Schoen remembers wrestling for food, for toys, over the best gulley or tree to build forts in. In fact, they were raised with the best care that two hard-worked people could manage. Jim remembers that they were loved well and taught what mattered – and what did not. Taking care of one another mattered. They still try to.
College educated at more than a few colleges – to which he has since sent off letters of sincere apology – Jim’s only degrees have been earned informally, in the building trades, working as a carpenter and as a plaster and stucco mason. He has always written.
“Born To This” appeared in Edifice Wrecked in 2006, an online magazine which is no longer. “Ice Cream” can currently be enjoyed in Structo 7, a newsprint magazine available mostly in England. “Treasure”, which started as a novel, was recently published in the Mutation Nation anthology, edited by Kelly Dunn.
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Tags: astral projection, experimentation, Jim Schoen, travel