Forget Magazine - Remember, Remember, Remember

Empty Chamber
by Peter Topolewski

So as not to sound desperate to David I waited for the fifth ring, then gently lifted the receiver. I paused a moment and said, "Carston Grey." I should have sounded as though I had not a care in the world.

"Carston, it's Floyd."

The voice didn't -

"Floyd Harlan, at Akron."

With the plastic held firmly to my ear I felt suddenly an absence of connection between my past just an instant old and the voice I heard from across the opposite end of the line. I felt as if I would know it but at the same time were asking myself what is it doing here? This did not seem right at all. "Floyd," I said finally. "I'm sorry, I was expecting you to be my agent."

"Quite all right. Say who are you using these days?" He sounded awfully casual.

"Excuse me? Oh. Sinclair. David Sinclair."

"Uh huh."

"Floyd, I must say this is really a surprise."

"Listen, are you busy?"

The question sent me back to that uneasy place where what I knew and what I was experiencing ground into each other like planets fallen from alignment. Such absurdity, I thought, and suddenly I was looking at my glass of Margaux '66 and saw the pile of magazine clippings scattered slightly beside it. I saw them glaringly this time, the source of so much tension alongside my last ounce or two of enforced bravery and I thought: how many more times can I rework stories of Jackie O's lingerie? "No more than usual, no," I answered.

"Do you have a few minutes?"

"Yes." I reached for my wine. "I do."

"I'd like to speak with you."

"Sure Floyd."

"I'd like to meet with you actually."

"Meet with me? Is anything the matter?"

"In a way, yes."

I felt the sudden rush of purpose. "Are you all right?"

He laughed in a way I'd not heard Floyd laugh. It was like a shrug. "My heart rate is up and my hands are tingling, if those are signs. But I have complete control of my emotions," he added quickly.

I don't know why, but I needed to ask. "Are you in any danger?" I said.

"No, none."

"Well what is it Floyd?"

"I'd prefer to speak with you about it in person."

He sounded very unusual, contrite almost. It was enough to make me think - yes! - and in the next moment I was volunteering. "Certainly. You're in the city?"

"Yes, at my office, downtown."

"Where would you like?"

"Somewhere near you."

"Fine. Let's make it the Gilded Lady. In 25 minutes."

* * * * *

Floyd could never travel from downtown to the Gilded Lady in twenty five minutes and I knew it. With traffic over the bridge and through the park I'd give him forty five minutes, fifty on the outside. I looked forward to finishing my wine unburdened of thought or care, and felt only the anticipation of leaving not too soon or too late, so that my stroll could be an end in itself and still bring me to the Gilded Lady with time for a cocktail before he arrived.

The evening was cool, the roads and walks damp and glistening. On the dark streets the lights from the brownstones on either side were too high or too far hidden behind curtains to do much more than announce occupancy. I preferred it this way. The strangers I passed remained blackened and unidentifiable, and the neighborhood safe, shut down but for the private matters behind heavy doors and brass knobs. The rising and falling hum of traffic from a nearby boulevard provided background noise and through it the clicking of my heels on the pavement signaled bold life.

The night chill could not diminish the certain sense of aloofness and possibility that I felt; at moments even invigorated the feeling. But passing through the doorway and into the Gilded Lady was a valuable end to my walk. The glazing of golden light rested just as it should on the red satin and the leather. As always it wore the edges from mirrors and bottles while somehow adding the appropriate sparkle to glasses tinkling with ice. The Gilded Lady invited and it granted certain, exhilarating confidence to its visitors. It said to all who entered: only certain things can happen here, the right things.

Perhaps it was the purpose of my visit or the fact that this was not my regular visiting hour that seemed to make the Lady's quiet glamour resound that touch louder tonight. She was more beautiful than ever.

The state of blessing I found under the Lady's light clung onto me while the host took my hat and coat and welcomed me inside. As he lead the way to my table I indicated I would first take a seat at the bar. I had a guest this evening, I said, and would wait for him here. I took a seat at the far end of the bar, facing the entrance, and ordered a Napoleon from Anthony. Silently he stepped away, commencing his duties with such efficiency that immediately my mind thought nothing of it. I looked away to the small collection of guests sitting throughout the room in groups of two and three, all secured like club members shining with smiles and understated vibrancy - only to find a moment later my Napoleon on the bar before me. I took a sip, and as if the liquid on my lips turned my senses on fully I heard in that instant the sounds of Strangers in the Night. I saw Edward at the piano. His manner, as usual, was very pleasant, his playing even better. Neither held my attention very long, however; finally at rest I found my thoughts quickly moving to Floyd and his unexpected telephone call.

Floyd is quite unlike anyone else I know. I've met people with more and deeper talents, people more fascinating in the sense they're the type I'm told the public likes to read about; but I've never been acquainted with a person like Floyd. He was an executive, the only intellectual executive I've ever met. We first encountered each other at a lunar-themed gathering in Algiers, 22 years ago. I was there on assignment for Sassy - long before its final, disastrous editorial overhaul - interviewing one of those aspiring non-military generals. This one was a gouty esthete with political ambitions. Unlike his counterparts, he showed no signs of suffering from tropism. Instead he commanded his men with a total disregard for daily events, as though he could not react to them. This general expected studies of Western philosophy to bring an end to the strife in his country. At his invitation I went to his hopelessly decorated villa just inside the walls of the Casbah. I had not been there long before I discovered that I knew all I needed to know before I'd arrived. When I made to leave I found myself trapped; the drawbridge over his moat had malfunctioned, stuck in the up position. It wasn't until hours later I discovered Floyd at the party.

At that time he was the vice president of some division or other of a failing American shipbuilder. How or why he was invited I never learned, but there he was, with what I later came to know as a regular entourage of apparent colleagues, consultants, women friends and associates, mingling among Algiers' minor royalty and semi-refined military pretenders. I don't recall who introduced us, but I was glad they did. For the duration of our brief conversation that night, about the surprising availability of Priapus Pro-lube in Algiers, I found Floyd charming, thoroughly educated, and forthright enough to be an honest liar. He displayed a tendentiousness which over the years I came to suspect arose from an innocent ignorance, a trying term, I know, one of my own invention, but still the best I've found to describe his lack of empathy, a lacking born not of his own laziness, you understand, but simply an absence there because he is unaware such things as points of view exist. I find it strange still how the social and temporal circles turn, for they conspired to bring us together regularly over the years, at dowry parties, private showings, and industry - no industrial - soirees, first in Montreal and quickly San Diego, after a spell Berlin, then Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Lisbon, Venice and, yes, Akron. That was where we last saw each other. I was investigating a sudden showing of E. coli that had coursed through Akron high society. I'd followed the trail to a fundraising dinner for the favorite charity of some newly crowned son of Akron, and there I found Floyd among the guests. To that point the evening had proved more boring than expected, and so I was pleased to have Floyd and his retinue there to entertain me for at least a few minutes. He was tanned and looking enthused -

A waitress had come and stood uncomfortably near to my right shoulder. I searched for Anthony and saw him, back turned, serving a young couple at the other end of the bar.

"Can I bring you another drink, sir?"

I looked at her closely. She was either new or had never worked during my regular calling time. "I'll have my usual."

"I'm sorry, sir, I'm not sure what your usual is. I'm new."

"Evidently. What is your name?"


"Emma. How nice. Emma, if you ask Anthony he'll be happy to make you my usual."

I got to know Floyd only through parties - an odd way to know a man, I'm the first to admit - and it seemed that it was only I who got to know him. That's not true of course, for although I was always curious about him and he never gave the sense he sought me out, we came to know one another as well as two people can amidst rising toasts and gliding hors d'oeuvres, revenue quotes and art waiting on walls for a verdict. And I established acquaintances, rather a collective acquaintance, with his entourage, Victoria, and Elsie, and Robert, Michel, and Natie; but he was our only thing in common. Our relationship revolved around Floyd, as though he were some shared experience, a prized pet, or child, or trophy. And I only spoke with them on the telephone, when they called worried about him for trouble he was or was about to get in. And so along with our joint pride in Floyd, we had a communal worry over him.

Through them I learned that in more volatile situations Floyd could act with little regard for consequences, what is called impulsively. Such as castigating a jilted lover by presenting her nude, screaming body to a Park Avenue apartment filled with guests, interrupting her husband mid-speech - and this fate hers despite, or perhaps because, she was the hostess. His emotional missteps did nothing to diminish the flamboyant elements of his personality, nor the magnetism that made him a necessity at the season's parties. I looked at my watch and realized Floyd was due any moment. I felt suddenly more anxious than I had at the hearing for my last divorce.

"Your Napoleon, sir." It seemed the pesky new waitress had the ability to materialize out of thin air. "Will there be anything else at the moment?"

"Bring another in four minutes," I said without looking at her.

Just then I saw the host leading Floyd toward me. He was looking well, dressed as ever in Brooks Brothers: shimmering gray jacket and blue slacks. He undermined this hint of conservative taste with a penchant for French hand-stitched shirts with Boston collars and colorful ties from Milan. Tonight it was gold with mauve stars scattered upon it randomly. It contrasted wonderfully with his white hair, combed high and back into an almost flat top of curls.

I rose and shook his hand, but he said nothing, glancing sidelong as if ordering the host to leave.

"Shall we sit?" I said, pointing toward my table in the middle of the lounge. He nodded and together we took our seats. "In other circumstances I would say this is splendid. We've never met like this. You know, arranged, just the two of us."

"Thanks so much Carston," he said somberly. "I mean it." The pesky new waitress brought my drink, and I waited until she took Floyd's order and walked away before I spoke. More desperately than I'd have liked I asked him what's happened.

"It's quite amazing Carston. You're not going to believe this." He paused rather effectively. "Earlier tonight I shot and killed a man."

I believe I'd expected anything but this. I sat straight in my chair and pushed my chin into my chest. "What are you talking about, Floyd?"

He leaned closer. "I'm talking about a man is dead. And I killed him," he said, pointing his finger at his cheek.

Something heavy and gray was filling the Gilded Lady, something I had capacity neither to name nor to dispel. I felt myself moaning. "You shouldn't have come, Floyd," I said slowly. I couldn't look at him. "You shouldn't have told me this. You know I have no taste for murder."

"Me neither," he insisted, pulling my attention to him. He had the desperate eyes of a caged animal. "It was always something elsewhere, abstract. But believe me tonight the abstract snapped on me just like trap."

Then I knew what it was. A solid, burdening reality had entered the Gilded Lady. It was forcing confrontation, demanding recognition, and with recognition I too would be caught in its trap. It did not make sense. This was Floyd. How could he of all people bring this into the Gilded Lady? I felt helpless about it, and wanted to get away - wanted suddenly to get him away. "But what are you going to do?" I asked.

"Do?" The question seemed to comfort him. His fingers straightened and the murkiness returned to his eyes. "Well, nothing. Everything's taken care of."

"Taken care of? The police?"

"No, they don't know."

"Who then, your attorney?"

"I don't need legal counseling!" He sounded annoyed by the question.

"What are you talking about then?" I was angry with him, made desperate and confused by this preposterous violation. "What do you want from me? Why not call your traveling companions, Michel or Elsie? They know you so well, they'll know what to do."

He shook his head calmly. "No, I'm afraid they wouldn't have much to say. They're a bit empty when it comes to things like this."

"You better call your attorney," I said. It was all I had left.

"You're a fugitive Floyd."

Peter Topolewski will finish the story tomorrow.

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