Flame by Richard Burgin
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In The Wine Bar, Simone had two glasses of wine to accompany her veal scaloppini and began to transform with very little coaxing from me.
“I’ve never done the kind of work I’m going to be doing for you, and I guess it’s making me a little nervous,” she confessed before she downed her second drink.
You’ve never been a woman either, I thought, compared to which my job must be pretty small potatoes as far as new experiences go. I didn’t say that, of course. What I said was, “That’s why I brought you to The Wine Bar to get you relaxed a little. But I’m not nervous about you. I know you can do the job. How does that wine taste by the way?”
“Oh very good, delicious.”
“I think I’ll have some too if that’s all right with you?”
“Of course, Phil,” she said, as I turned and looked for my waitress. It didn’t take long before she materialized. I think the waitresses can smell it the moment when you want a drink.
Later, Simone said, “Oh no I couldn’t,” covering her mouth suddenly with her hand as if it were a sin to even dignify my question of whether she’d like a third drink, with any kind of considered answer.
“Oh sure you could,” I said. “You work very hard at the UPS store five days a week.”
“Really?” I said in a shocked voice, although I’d memorized her schedule a long time ago.
“Oh yes, every other Saturday I work there too.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound right. You deserve to live a little.”
“Am I doing all right?” she asked, her innocent gray blue eyes locking onto me.
“You’re doing fine,” I said, as I once more signaled to the waitress. So far, my making the decisions was working out pretty well, I thought, as I felt some definite stirrings inside me, something that only happened to me lately when I thought about Simone.
When we got to my place Simone was definitely a little tipsy and so was I.
“Your place is so big and beautiful,” she said, pointing to it as if she’d just spotted a rare animal at the zoo. I left her for a moment to light two candles on the long sofa table. As I suspected the orange light was quite flattering for Simone, who was wearing a bright yellow shirt and loose-fitting jeans.
“Thank you, Simone. Why don’t you sit down on the sofa and relax for a minute?”
She looked at me with a slightly confused expression before sitting down a little awkwardly but still in an unassumingly charming way. I quickly sat beside her.
“So how are things in your life these days?”
My question appeared to have surprised her even more.
“Oh, things are fine, I guess.”
“Things going along smoothly then?”
“No changes of any note?”
“Well this new job you hired me for is a change. Can you tell me what I’d be doing a bit more?”
“Of course I can, and I will. I just thought we could talk for a few minutes more and get to know each other a little. I think people work best when they get to know each other first and can be more open with each other, don’t you?”
“I suppose so,” she said in an uncertain voice, echoed by her uncertain eyes.
“Don’t you think employer and employee should be absolutely honest with each other?”
“I mean not just in professional matters, but in every aspect of their lives?”
“But wouldn’t their relationship just be a professional one?”
“Oh no, not at all. I guess that’s where I have a philosophical difference with you. I believe much more in the Japanese system of running a business, where they treat each other like family. And just as there shouldn’t be secrets in a happy family there shouldn’t be any between employer and worker.”
Simone looked both confused and temporarily discouraged.
“Do you have any secrets from your family?” I asked her quickly in as normal sounding a voice as I could manage considering I was almost trembling with excitement.
Immediately she looked away from me.
“Some what?” I asked, wanting to hear her say the word.
“And what are those secrets about?”
She looked down at the floor.
“I don’t feel comfortable talking about it, Phil.”
“Now, see, that’s just what I’m talking about,” I said, getting up from the couch as if I’d had a revelation. I got up, but I didn’t go far. I had my best bottle of wine already opened and corked before I met her at the store. Beside the bottle were two wine glasses on a small, circular glass table by the sofa.
“You definitely need another glass of wine. I’ve brought out my best.”
“Oh, no, Phil, I couldn’t.”
“But I’ve already opened it so you can’t say no.”
“Really I shouldn’t,” she said while I was already pouring for each of us.
“But why in heaven’s name not?”
“It will disrupt my thinking. Don’t you want me to think clearly?”
“I want you to be honest,” I said, handing her her drink. She thanked me for it, in spite of herself. I reached out and gently pushed back a few strands of her hair that were loose on her forehead. Her hair felt extraordinarily soft. After I did that her cheeks reddened.
“I just feel confused about what you mean and what…”
“Drink,” I said authoritatively. “Drink it now.”
She took a swallow. “Couldn’t we start talking about the project now?”
I ignored her remark and reaching into the pocket of my sports jacket removed my wallet. “So Simone, did you enjoy the little gift I gave you yesterday?”
“I brought it back to give to you. It was very kind but…”
“What? Why would you do that? I told you that money was yours.”
“In case you changed your mind, I mean, I didn’t do anything to deserve it.”
“My dear child, you do everything to deserve it. I want to give you a lot more, too,” I said, removing ten hundred dollar bills and putting them on the table.
“But I haven’t done anything yet, for the project.”
“We’ll get to that project. Right now the project I’m concerned with is Project Honesty, and since we’re in a business relationship, I’m prepared to pay you for your honesty. It works like this: the more honest you are the more I’ll pay you. Pretty good deal, huh? Now go on, finish the glass.”
“I don’t understand what you want me to be honest about,” she said, setting the just finished glass down on the mahogany table near her where a candle was burning.
“The secret that you’re hiding from your family and probably from a lot of other people too. I want you to tell me that story. Believe me, I still have a lot of secrets I keep from my parents.”
She looked away without saying anything. “Is there anything else I could be honest about instead,” she finally said.
I laughed. “Oh yes, indeed. As I said the more honest you are the more I’ll pay you and you need money very badly don’t you?”
“Because of your secret you really do need money. You see, I already think I know your secret, don’t I?”
“It’s not that much of a secret, at this point,” she said.
“No, no it isn’t. That’s why I’m surprised you don’t want to tell me about it. But I tell you what, if you show me your secret I’ll pay you twice as much. That’s two thousand dollars just to show me.”
“You don’t mean that, do you, Phil?”
I realized then I shouldn’t even tell her what option three was yet, for which I was willing to pay considerably more.
“Yes, I do mean it. That’s how much honesty, your honesty, means to me. Look, I understand some people have trouble talking about things so that’s why I’m also offering you, for twice the money, the chance to simply show me where you won’t have to say a word.”
“But that would mean I’d have to…”
“Yes, I know what it would mean but it would just be for a few seconds. You think about it. You need money, desperately, and I’m offering you a lot. Not just today, but if we work together I could pay for the whole thing.”
“No, I couldn’t,” she said, making a gesture to get up and leave.
“Couldn’t what? Show me, or let me pay for everything? Doesn’t matter, the answer to either question is the same, yes you can. Just like the President says—yes you can. That’s the answer.”
I took another thousand dollars out of my overstuffed wallet before she could move and placed the money where she could see it on the table.
“So, what do you say?” I said. … “Why are you hesitating? Do you have someone?”
“I did,” Simone said, eyes on the floor again.
“Someone who was going to pay for things?”
“I thought I did.”
“Well now you have me, who really cares about you, to help you. Someone you can count on a thousand percent.”
“I just can’t, really, I can’t.”
“Can’t?” I said. “Before you give me an answer like that, I want to tell you a story from my life, ok? You could say I’m leading by example, if you want, by telling you the ultimate secret of my life. It won’t take long so please, please listen.”
I went on to tell her the story of my son. I had never had a son or any other child but I didn’t think she’d know I was lying. I’d told this story a couple of other times in my life and been believed and even told it to myself so much that at times even I half believed it, myself. It was a story about raising my son as a single parent after his mother left me. A story about extreme parental devotion to an emotionally troubled, but adorable, little boy. I described the toys I bought him, all the games we played and built. I described the daily stories we told for hours on end—stories about an imaginary world we created filled with people and animals that we also made up. I described how I cooked and cleaned for him and changed all his diapers. Then I told her about the sixteen trips I took with him to places all over the world—London and Paris and Argentina and Madrid, California and Washington D.C. and Chicago and Boston and Florida. I mentioned how my devotion to my emotionally needy son cost me my chance with the great love of my life and was ultimately the reason why she walked away from me. But I also described how my son’s behavior improved, how his temper tantrums turned instead to laughter, how he slowly developed into a joyful, creative person who was finally able to feel and express empathy for others.
I saw how quickly and totally I got Simone’s attention with my story and saw how each of the emotions she felt registered in unedited form on her soon to be woman’s face. She had no problem feeling empathy. But now, it was time for my story’s conclusion. This would be difficult. I had to describe how my son died, how he drowned in Costa Rica the victim of a vicious, sudden rip tide that took him out to sea and buried him in his beloved ocean. How had he escaped from my ever-vigilant eye? He had snuck out early in the morning while I was sleeping (we were staying in a resort that was right on the beach). It was his love of the sea that did it, that he couldn’t resist so he changed into his bathing suit and tiptoed out of the room in the half-light of early morning drawn by the little death flame of the rising sun before the lifeguard or anyone else was on the hotel beach.
“Of course I was crazed with grief after it happened,” I said, “and considered suicide many times after he died. But then I decided to try to help others, that that’s what my son would have wanted. That it was therefore the only way my life could make sense and be bearable.”
“Oh my God,” Simone said, finally placing her empty glass on the table, as if she’d been afraid to make a sound during my long monologue. I thought I saw tears sliding down her face.
“And now I’ve met you and want to help you. Do you see?”
“I’m just so sorry for you.”
“Thank you,” I said, still feeling close to tears myself.
“When did that happen to him, to you?”
“A little more than a year ago. The anniversary of his death was just before Halloween. He loved candlelight too. That’s why I lit these candles.”
She started crying softly again.
“Please,” I said, “please stop crying. Could you just give me a hug?”
A moment later Simone was in my arms for the first time, though I thought it best to release her after a few seconds. But she was still silently crying and stayed in my arms of her own free will while I gently stroked her hair. Meanwhile, I had an unusual train of thought. It began with my wondering why I was so shaken by the story and why, when I told it, especially this time, did it almost seem true? Then I thought if I had had a son that is the type of thing that would have happened. If I’d had a child I would have lost it, the way I’d lost every person I’d ever loved, one way or another, to one degree or another. Or perhaps that wasn’t it at all, and the story was about me and how I “lost” the closeness with my father I once had when I was very young symbolized by my “son’s” drowning. I didn’t know, one can never be sure about one’s life.
Whatever the reason I’d told it again, Simone was still in my arms and I heard myself half whisper, “You can be my child, let me help you.”
Only then did she disengage and look at me with an expression of both compassion and fear.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“My head is spinning.”
“Lie down on the sofa,” I said, suddenly getting up. “I’ll go get you some Tylenol.”
Simone didn’t look in good shape when I returned to the sofa. “Here, swallow this,” I said, lowering the glass to her lips. I waited for her to swallow, hovering over her in her yellow shirt and jeans, and then put the glass on the table by the sofa, a table now completely covered with hundred dollar bills. I suddenly knew what to do next. I gathered up the twenty hundred dollar bills in my hands.
“Sit up Simone, in fact stand up. You’ll feel better.”
She looked at me dizzily and almost passively and finally stood up grasping one arm of the sofa to help steady herself.
“Here, this is yours,” I said, stuffing the money into her jean pockets before she could protest or ever react. “Now you have twenty two hundred dollars towards helping you get what you want.” I began unzipping her blessedly loose jeans.
“What are you doing?” she said weakly, as if it took all her strength to focus on what was happening to her.
“Simone, you have taken my money, you have taken my heart. Don’t be so precious to yourself. It will just make me happy for a few seconds, just to look at you, not even to touch you. Come on, I thought you wanted to help me too?”
I’d now succeeded in lowering her jeans down her shaven legs.
“But it’s not ready,” Simone protested. “It’s not pretty yet.”
I didn’t say anything to that. I simply lowered her pants below her knees, then did the same to her delicately white panties until they were down as low and then looked at a tilting to the left, but otherwise normal looking penis, normal except that all the pubic hair had been shaved.
Simone gasped then. It was a ghostly sound, horrified and restrained at the same time, as she turned away to dress herself. I had hoped for something different of course, from her and from what she showed me. Some surge of excitement instead of piercing regret and sorrow.
Simone sobbed for just a few seconds, then stopped and concentrated on getting dressed and out of my home as quickly as she could. When she was dressed and in possession of her pocketbook and car keys she headed for the door accompanied by me.
“Simone,” I said, “I’m sorry if this hurt you.”
“It’s ok. You didn’t make me do it.”
“No, it’s not ok. I want to pay for your operation, no strings attached.”
“I don’t want anymore of your money, ever. I wish you wouldn’t come to the store again either, except when you know I’m not there.”
“Only if you’ll promise to keep working there and you’ll see, good things will happen. I will help you yet,” I said, half to myself as she shut the door and disappeared into her car and then into the night.
* * *
You are outside in the dark but inside you have a house with two candles burning. With light it isn’t clear that you’d even need a god, you could always just look ahead. But fire is different. Its flame reminds you of what you can’t forget.
I walked to the glass table where my money had once been by the sofa and where Simone had once been and in a sense would always be. Without hesitation, I put my thumb and index finger into the flame of the closest candle. It was pure and strong like our father the sun and gave me the pain I deserved.