illustrated by roy dismas
"he realized he had been walking blind through a garden of infinite delights" - paul de saint-girard, "les reverberes de marseilles"
pale afternoon light barely made it through the windows of the wendy's on the outskirts of town.
outside, the occasional rumbling and grinding of a big rig interrupted the steady whoosh of vehicles on the interstate.
bob sat by himself in the back, sipping his cup of still lukewarm coffee. a tray with a couple of napkins stared up at him. with only a few crumbs and small spots of grease on the napkins - the remains of two bacon deluxe doubles with fries.
it was the afternoon of the second day of the rest of his life. bob's brain was ready to burst with excitement.
once again - to bob's now somewhat diminishing amazement - neither the woman behind the counter or any of the customers had shown a flicker of surprise or contempt when he made his large order.
bob felt a slight twinge in his stomach. nothing to worry about, he told himself quickly - nothing to get in the way of ecstasy. his course was set - he would let nothing get in his way. no more fear! no more caving in to social prejudice!
still, a few flashes of bitterness could not help but flash through his brain - as he thought of all the lost years of tofu and salads and granola. what a fool he had been, what a blind fool!
but there was no time for looking back - only forward. he pushed up out of the chair - another twinge - maybe he had eaten the two bacon deluxe doubles a little too quickly - and went outside and got in his car.
there was an arby's roast beef directly across the wendy's on the other side of the entrance to the interstate. he was tempted for a moment to just go around the rotary to it. no, he thought, somebody might notice me and wonder -
he knew he shouldn't care if anybody did wonder about anything he did. but he couldn't change the way he was - why bother trying, with six weeks to live?
but maybe some state troopers or fbi agents would notice him going to establishments right next to each other and think he was a bank robber or terrorist planning a job and getting to know the territory! no, better to just be on his way and follow the schedule he had carefully mapped out that morning after a surprisingly good sleep.
next stop - a popeyes fried chicken about five miles away, over the county line. the "catfish meal" sounded like a good change of pace. and he would be hungry after the drive.
he turned on the smooth jazz station - the one he usually listened to - and eased his car - a navy blue 2006 hyundai tiburon he had bought with 24,000 miles on it - onto the interstate.
about halfway to the next exit traffic began to back up and then slowed down to a crawl. an accident? probably, but bob didn't bother to switch to the traffic and weather station. he was content - content to listen to kenny g and george winston as a few raindrops began to fall on the windshield.
his cell phone throbbed in his pocket. probably his old job, offering "counseling" again. thank you very much, but no thanks, he had other priorities - like some kfc double down chicken sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy.
he waited for it to go to message, then picked up. it was the job, but instead of counseling, it was some garbage about his 401k. he had never paid any attention to that stuff when he was going to live to be 100. he put the phone back in his pocket. the line was moving a little and a horn sounded behind him.
impatience! for what? bob wondered how many of his fellow riders on the highway of life were going nowhere, as he had been until the day before yesterday. "walking blind through a garden of infinite delights"
"he was outcast from life's feast." - james joyce, "dubliners"
when bob reached the bottom of the stairs, he felt proud of himself for taking it so well when the doctor told him he had six weeks to live. the doctor's office was in a small commercial mall, over a t j maxx discount store which was beside a burger king.
it was the middle of december, and night was falling early. bob turned to get to the wider part of the parking lot and his car, and his eye fell on the signs in the window of the burger king. bob had always been an assiduously healthy eater - and a lot of good it did me, he told himself ruefully - and had never in his life been inside a burger king, a mcdonalds or any similar establishment. he started to pass by, then stopped.
although he had only six weeks to live, he had nothing in particular to do. he was just going to go home and watch reruns of seinfeld and drew carey, like he did every night. suddenly he was hungry. on an impulse he went into the burger king.
he wandered wide eyed up to the counter. he stared up at the illustrated menus on the back wall. the two young women behind the counter didn't seem to think it odd that he took so much time looking at the menu.
a whopper! he had heard the term, but there was something unreal about actually seeing it on the wall. he stepped a little closer to the counter and one of the young women asked, "can i help you?"
"i'll have a whopper, please."
"anything with it? fries, onion rings?"
bob didn't laugh, although he might have if she had actually said, "do you want fries with that?"
"anything to drink?"
"uh - coffee."
"how do you want it?"
incredible! he was actually ordering in a burger king! this was much more amazing than dying in six weeks.
when the order came - in less than a minute! - bob took his tray and moved to a table in the back as far from the other customers as he could get. he realized he had forgotten to take any napkins and got up to get some, keeping a careful eye on the tray he left on the table.
he returned to the table and sat down. he suddenly noticed how bright the whole place was. why did it have to be so bright? he picked up the whopper in two hands, hesitated, and bit into it.
and his whole life changed.
for the first time in his life, bob knew ecstasy. and that was just from biting into the whopper. when he actually started chewing, swallowing, and digesting it - tears erupted in his eyes.
time dissolved. his consciousness stood outside himself, watching himself devour the whopper. slow down, slow down, it told him - don't choke, don't choke yourself. and enjoy the moment.
he finished the burger and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls of the black coffee, barely noticing how hot it was. normal consciousness drained back into his body.
he looked at around at the other patrons of the establishment - mostly overweight teenage girls in blue or gray sweatshirts. nobody seemed to have noticed him and his transcendant experience. they were concentrating on their portions, in a manner both businesslike and blase.
he wanted another one.
now the problem began. bob was a very self conscious person - perhaps the world's most self conscious person. would he look silly going back for another one?
would the girls at the counter, the other diners, laugh at him, openly or secretly? no, he told himself, they didn't laugh or even notice when i stood gawking at the menu like a martian. surely they won't laugh if i just order another one? people must order seconds every day - wasn't that why americans were overweight? and yet - and yet -
with a supreme effort of will bob forced himself up out of his chair. the girl hardly looked up when he ordered the second burger. he went and sat back down with a barely suppressed sigh of relief.
he hardly had time to start thinking about the strange turns his now shortened life had taken when the whopper was ready. this is great, he thought, this is what the word "fast" really means.
he ate the second burger more slowly, "like a civilized human being" (one of his favorite phrases). and as he devoured the burger and sipped his black coffee - maybe he should start putting cream and sugar - two sugars! - in it - terrible and regretful thoughts started percolating in his brain.
"i am sorry to say," said the comte de st denis, "that it has been a while since i hunted."
"but surely you have not forgotten how," mademoiselle cecile laughed.
"no, no, of course not." the comte chose his words carefully. "but i must have grown rusty. no doubt if i accompanied you tomorrow my ineptitude would embarrass me and hinder you."
"no doubt," the baron responded dryly.
"oh but sir," mademoiselle cecile looked steadily at the comte "you simply must conserve your strength tomorrow. for my sake, if not your own."
"i bow to your judgment, mademoiselle." the comte turned in the direction of his host. "if you don't mind my asking, sir, what exactly do you hunt in this remote area? i may be mistaken, but it seems unlikely that you have keepers, or any system to keep a supply of game."
"gamekeepers - what a thought!" for the first time the comte heard the baron actually laugh. "no sir, one of the many advantages of living outside the confines is that one get to hunt truly wild animals. animals that have no fear - only contempt - for humans."
"and you hunt them without recourse to - what for lack of a better term i shall term supernatural - resources?"
mademoiselle cecile laughed but did not respond.
"there is no such thing as the supernatural, sir," the baron replied in a milder voice than the traveler expected. "there are only the known and the unknown."
"and no one can know everything, can they?" added cecile.
"i suppose not."
"but here," said the baron. "is gruz, no doubt to rescue you and us from these fruitless and tiresome speculations. gruz, i take it our guest's repast is prepared and ready?"
"in that case, sir, i bid you good night. gruz will accompany you and then see you to your room. we will see you again tomorrow evening, when the sun has gone down."
the traveler rose from the couch. he was a little embarrassed to find himself suddenly overcome with weariness and unsteady on his feet. gruz took his arm unobtrusively and guided him out of the room.
a blast of cold air - from outside? - revived him when they were in the corridor. it was very dark in the corridor. the traveler looked back over his shoulder. no light seemed to be coming from the room they had left.
gruz stared at him and pointed him back down the corridor with his candle.
it was the most perfect day for a horse race that paris had ever seen.
the glittering world had made the milliners and haberdashers of the continent prosperous beyond their wildest dreams overnight , in their mad quest to have the latest cut of the finest cloth at any price, so as each to outshine their fellow on this most glorious of days.
however, one class of personage was miserably unhappy. the baron de t--------, and the other bookmakers of paris were having one of the worst cup days in memory. word had leaked out that the fix was in - the comte de g-----------'s horse, jebadar, would win in a walk, as a result of the foreign minister's gratitude to the comte de g-------- for his good offices in arranging the secret treaty with the sultan of y---------. (the treaty itself remained a secret known only to the foreign minister and his most trusted underlings, but the gesture of gratitude had been irrevocably compromised. when the baron de t---------, on behalf of the fraternity of bookmakers, had made a personal appeal to the foreign minister he had been rebuffed in a manner that bordered on insult, and had bowed and withdrawn rather than press the affair to a conclusion which would certainly have proved most unhappy for the minister).
but on the morning of the race the baron de t------ was determined to put a good face on things and to enjoy the spectacle and fine weather at least. he was lounging insouciantly at his favorite spot under an elm tree a hundred yards from the main gate, when he was hailed by his old friend the marquis de a-------. the marquis was accompanied by aristide b------, a young man from the provinces. the most distant provinces, as a quick glance at the cut of his clothes revealed to the baron, who, however, being a perfect gentleman, repressed a smile.
the marquis de a-------, who was not a bookmaker, and who, though an inveterate gambler on the turn of cards, did not wager on the sport of kings, was in a mood in harmony with the glorious day. after greetings had been exchanged and introductions made, the marquis turned a bemused countenance from the young man to the baron, and announced:
"my young cousin has had some good fortune lately - something about silver being found in his african possessions - and he wishes to increase that good fortune by wagering on the main race."
barely concealing his annoyance, the baron nodded politely to the young man. "on jebadar, no doubt."
"oh, no, monsieur, i am determined to wager all on assyrian prince."
"on assyrian prince!" the baron glanced at the marquis with the barest raising of his eyebrow.
"i have explained the situation to him." the marquis announced. "but he is determined to press on. i also explained that no one bookmaker, not even yourself, could guarantee a wager of the size he wishes to make. he is hoping to use your good offices to help him spread his wager among the brethren."
"and he is determined to wager "all", is he?" the baron's customary sangfroid was almost unequal to his astonishment. "do you have a reason for this, young man?"
"indeed i do, monsieur. the archangel jehudiel appeared to me in a dream last night, and told me that today i would see the most beautiful woman in the world, and that i should stake my entire fortune on assyrian prince in the cup."
"i see. and have you seen the most beautiful woman in the world?"
"not as yet, monsieur. but i have faith in the archangel."
just then a small commotion and excited murmuring broke out among the fops and neer-do-wells mingling just outside the main gate. a small white carriage, in the round antique style., had pulled up and its single occupant was stepping lightly to the ground.
it was mademoiselle cecile, in a simple white dress, her pale hair and green eyes flashing in the sun beneath a tiny blue parasol.