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When I first saw the woman with the reddish-brunette hair, she reminded me of someone I had once known and loved.
It was the end of winter. A long, bitter season. Grey and flat as the hull of an aircraft carrier. At least, that's how it was for me, handed over to the sisters at Green Manors who fed me spoonfuls of watery soup and sponged me down in their tepid baths. I will never forget the laughter and the tears and the cruel eyes studying me.
Madeleine was gone and I was at the bottom of a fathomless well. My old friend Midge did what she could to help, until there was nothing left to do. So she put me someplace. Someplace. That most ashen euphemism.
After that winter, I knew I had to get out, away from the flowers and the Mozart and the permeating odors of urine and lye. But I had nowhere to go.
So I took to the streets, wandering, pausing only to stop at the food carts on Hawthorne or to fall into my bed at night; always wandering, searching the eyes of strangers as if for an omen, a face I could recognize amid the cacophony of the traffic and the distant lowing of the foghorns.
And always searching for Madeleine, my Lenore, “doubly dead in that she died so young.”
And then I saw her. The hair was wrong, of course, and the makeup. And those awful clothes! But there was something about her I couldn't ignore. I had to meet her. I knew it was wrong. Maybe even a little crazy. We all go a little crazy sometimes, don't we?
And so I followed her home, trailing her to her room in Chinatown, which, like Shanghai itself, has seen better days.
“Is this some kind of Gallup Poll?” she asked, her voice flat and barren.
She was nothing but a shopgirl, she insisted. She even showed me her driver's license. Salina, Kansas. But I couldn't shake the feeling I had. The look in her eye that told me that maybe, if you're in the right place at the right time and you get a lucky break, the present can bend back and stretch across the galaxies to touch the past. Standing in her flyspeck hotel room, amid her forlorn tchotchkes, I asked her out.
“Why?” she said. “Because I remind you of someone?”
“I've heard that one before,” she said. “Let's see, I remind you of someone you were madly in love with. But then she ditched you for another guy and you've been carrying a torch ever since. Then you saw me and something clicked.”
“You're not far wrong,” I said and my face clouded over.
“She's dead, isn't she?”
Exactly one hour later, I picked her up for dinner.
Before I go any farther, you should know that I was always honest with her. Regardless of how you judge what I'm about to tell you, she always knew exactly what I wanted from her—and she went along with it. Strange to say, I felt somehow responsible for her. As if she were someone whose life I'd once saved. With that came a sense of ownership.
At first, I just wanted to see more of her. As time went by, however, the dinners at Beaker and Flask, the dancing, the walks in Washington Park weren't enough. Admittedly, things got a little out of hand.
At times I might have been more intrusive than I should have been.
But when I looked in her eyes, I saw, not this woman, but Madeleine. Or rather, I saw her face lingering where Madeleine's should have been, like an interloper; an uninvited visitor who has overstayed her welcome. This wasn't right. Something had to change.
Starting with her wardrobe.
She should have been grateful—instead she fought me the whole way. Yet, each step brought me closer to... I wasn't sure what. I had to see this through.
“Why are you doing this?” she said. “What good will it do?”
“I don't know. No good, I guess. I don't know,” I said, turning to the window, frustrated and angry, but most of all, confused. So there we were. Locked in our deranged embrace. Me unable to let go. She unable to break free. Still, those past few days were the first happy days I'd had in a year.
The clothes were certainly an improvement. But they weren't enough. Her hair was all wrong, for one thing. Madeleine was blonde.
The next day, I went with her to the salon and ordered up Madeleine's precise platinum shade. And then I explained the makeover, selecting her lipstick, her eye shadow and eyebrow pencil. Her skin tone—well, I couldn't do much there. I explained how her nails ought to be trimmed and manicured, even stipulating the nail color. I was the director of a movie in my head, a svengali, creating a starring role for an audience of one.
I returned to her squalid apartment to wait.
One hour went by.
And then two.
And then three.
It was getting toward evening when I heard the elevator down the hall rattle to a stop. She was in the suit and blouse I'd bought her. She wore the shoes. Her makeup and hair checked out too. But....
“Well?” she said.
“Your hair should be back from your face and pinned at the neck. I told her that. I told you that.”
“We tried it. It just didn't seem to suit me.”
“Please.” I nodded toward her restroom, sending her to finish what I'd started.
When she came out, I knew.
I had her at last.
Back from the dead and in my arms once more.
She was a very apt pupil. I owned her fully and completely. One doesn't often get a second chance. She was mine and I determined then and there to never let her go. She was my second chance.
Death itself couldn't part us.
Saturday, June 4, 2011
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