Norman Thomas di Giovanni

    A Mate for Martaby Harry Elliot

    Her cliques were not mine, but somehow once or twice a year our paths still managed to cross. Romance was never an option, though; I was too short, and she was smart enough to see other problems.

    Marta was thirty-five, divorced, and a consistent presence at symphony, theatre, and art exhibits in some public radio-related capacity, managerial rather than on-air. From time to time her assignments involved political events.

    It was at one of these, in a downtown hotel, that Marta and I found ourselves together in an emptying ballroom at the tail end of a fundraiser or victory celebration of some sort. We were champagne-drunk and incapable of serious conversation - unless talking sex can be considered serious, which, to us, on that occasion, it wasn't. We had one prudent thing on our minds - not getting behind the wheel. The hotel obliged. Giggly, we registered as man and wife, and I proceeded to act like a college boy with an out-of-town date.

    But whatever my deficiencies in her eyes before sex, afterward it seems they just dried up and vanished. I'd somehow leapfrogged over serious contenders - long-term suitors, family matches - and had been elevated to a privileged inner circle.

    Along with my new status, however, a dark cloud was quick to appear on the horizon. 'My dad's invited us to dinner,' Marta announced out of the blue. It was to be one of her eighty-one-year-old father's Friday night dinners at which she was customarily present. 'It's not formal, but if I were you I'd wear my best suit,' she added.

    On the appointed evening she wore a black silk ensemble, cream-colored blouse, and - I suspect for my benefit - low heels. With delicate features and porcelain skin, she used makeup sparingly except to enhance her most striking feature. Her eyes. Dark, compelling, they drew you in. Drew me in. Hopelessly lost in them, I'd hear the Gypsy song Otchi Tchorniya sung in Russian as a tango, playing loudly, shamelessly, in my mind.

    We drove crosstown in my seldom-used gas-guzzling Town Car. I remember the first time she saw it. 'So where's your chauffeur?' she'd said, actually rolling her eyes.

    I held back, defending my indefensible buy American politics. 'I'm not into imports,' I explained, exposing myself as an outright bigot. But she let the subject drop. In fact, she's been letting worse subjects drop ever since, which is one of the reasons I love her.

    We arrived under her father's porte cochere a little after eight o'clock. She seemed surprised when he opened the door himself. They touched cheeks - left, then right. Or was it right, then left? Whenever it's my turn I never seem to get the routine straight and wind up with noses all over the place. Embarrassing.

    The old man's grip was firm, yet in spite of his huge hands I matched it. He was tall and thickset, with coarse features that seemed to belie a gentility I hoped would be there if I stumbled. In other words, if combat were on the evening's menu, maybe I'd be offered the prerogatives of a guest while he'd be held to the protocols of a host.

    He led us into the large sitting room centrally located on the ground floor of his secluded, edge-of-town residence. In spite of its size, the room was comfortable - a fire in the fireplace, table lamps turned down low, drawn drapes, thick oriental rugs. The place was cozy even, despite all the weaponry.

    'Aperitif?' he asked.

    Guns and swords were on display everywhere, some mounted on the oak-paneled walls and others on the shelves of glass cabinets. Many bore descriptive plaques - 'Byzantine ferrule, A.D. 487'. Quaint, I thought, accompanying him to an ornate mahogany liquor cabinet. Behind gold-trellised doors were dozens of bottles, their exotic labels, like their contents, a mystery to me. Oddly, not one had a tax stamp.

    'Dubonnet?' I ventured.

    A frown crossed the old man's austere face. He summoned a butler by pressing a foot-button next to an easy chair beside the fireplace, and before long the three of us were contentedly sipping the aromatic crimson fluid.

    'Your selection of liquors is quite impressive,' I said, hoping flattery would excuse my inept choice of wine, a choice that in some unfathomable way might make me look a fool.

    Marta answered for him. 'My father can't pass a duty-free shop without making a purchase. It's his greatest weakness - perhaps his only weakness, now that I think of it.' Her eyes met mine and I saw a compassionate woman offering protection to a lover with God knows how many weaknesses yet to be revealed.

    I walked over to a picture frame in which dozens of fascinating medals, ribbons, heraldic crosses, and jewelled medallions from various times and places were mounted under glass. 'Are these yours?' I asked him.

    In answer to my poorly-worded question, he spoke a curt 'Off course' in his thick Slavic accent. Sure, they were his, but what I meant was did he get them at a garage sale. I didn't press the point further.

    Our meal was served with the old man at the head of the dining-room table; Marta and I sat facing each other in front of him. 'So, vot iss it you do?' he asked over our smoked salmon appetizer.

    He seemed to shake his head when I told him how much I enjoyed teaching history at a local prep school.

    'Mine daughter, she brinks in a good salary.'

    I stared at him in silence.

    'You vould share in her vay off life?'

    'I might enjoy sharing in his,' Marta said, entering the conversation for the first time. She faced me as she spoke, her tender, assuring eyes never leaving mine.

    The old man raised an eyebrow, frowned, and pushed his foot-button. The butler rushed in, removed our empty plates, and informed us that the main course would be arriving presently.

    After dinner we returned to the sitting room, which was now totally transformed from what I remembered of it barely two hours earlier. No fire, no cozy lamps, and near total darkness. The room's only illumination came from a single narrow spotlight under which a table had been set for chess, with the black and white pieces already in place on the board.

    Marta's father confronted me from across the table. The harsh light seemed to turn his skull into a death's head. He held out two fists, palms down.

    Left or right hand. How did I get myself into this? My game was blackjack. On my computer I was ahead by almost $5,000. I stared at his fists, his grim face.

    The old man extended a hand, turned it over, opened it, and offered me the ivory pawn. 'Be mine guest,' he said graciously.

    I was not reassured. When we were seated, he spoke again. 'Vun game. Vinner take all.'

    I smiled noncommittally. 'What did you say were the stakes?' I asked.

    'Mine daughter,' he said, dead serious. Then he looked from me to her and winked. 'I vos chust kiddink, chust to reduce za tension. Ya?'

    She seemed unamused.

    After my conventional opening, he began to take me apart. White pieces were disappearing fast from the board and had begun to form a depressing column by his side of the timer. Did I mention the timer? He had us timing our moves. Three or four minutes for each of mine; fifteen seconds, on average, for his.

    I sensed disaster, humiliation, maybe worse - the loss of Marta. I didn't know how he'd manage it, but I felt strangely powerless to prevent it.

    I toyed with the idea of inadvertently tipping over the board. 'Sorry,' I'd say, but a ploy like that would only work to establish me as a loser - and the worst kind of all, a sore loser.

    'Vell?' he asked, seeing that my eyes had strayed from the board.

    Marta, who'd left the room, was now coming back.

    'I'd like a drink,' I said in her direction.

    'Seltzer or plain?'

    She thought I meant water. 'What I had in mind is that Russian - or is it Danish? - liqueur. Aquavit, I think it's called.' I was referring to an extremely strong schnapps, possibly 151 proof or more.

    She and her father exchanged a long glance. One that spurred me on. 'Bring three glasses,' I added.

    Marta filled three delicate cordial glasses with the clear liquid. We each took one.

    'To your daughter's health,' I said, my crystal glass raised in her direction. I had intended to say 'love' instead of 'health' but at the last second changed my mind.

    Grimly, the old man looked at his drink, then turned toward me with a pained expression, and, for the first time, possibly even respect. As I knew he would, he downed the whole glass in the old Russian tradition - in a single gulp.

    The onset was rapid. First a shallow cough, then another. He had trouble catching his breath. But what really scared me was the rattle in his throat.

    'Call 911!' I screamed to Marta.

    With the proper lights back on, his face was ashen. I loosened his tie, his belt, and later unbuttoned his shirt. We laid him on a couch and, while waiting for the ambulance, began to towel him off with damp washcloths.

    When the medics arrived his breathing was still shallow, but he refused to budge from the couch. They gave him a shot of digitalis as part of the process of taking him in. 'I haff no intention of leaffing mine houz,' he insisted, waving them away. Marta caught my eye and shrugged.

    One of the medics began running an EKG on a portable unit while Marta and I waited, hand in hand, as the results emerged. After what seemed an eternity, the young medic turned off his machine, looked at us, and gave a thumbs up.

    'What should we do?' I asked him.

    'If he were my dad,' said the young man, 'just to be on the safe side, I'd take him in.'

    We got the old man into his Mercedes and I drove to the hospital without incident. His cardiologist was waiting for us in the Intensive Care section of the large, multi-community suburban facility. They ran tests all night.

    'He refuses to be admitted,' the doctor finally reported to us in a corner of the visitors' room. 'But to tell you the truth, he seems okay. I'd like to keep him under observation, but I won't against his will.'

    Marta was apprehensive but she signed him out, and at dawn - with stars still visible but fading fast - we arrived home. On the way to his bedroom we passed the sitting room.

    'Would you like to finish the game?' I joked.

    He shuffled into the room and made his way to the board, where, with one sweep of his arm, he sent all the pieces flying. Turning back to us, he nodded with satisfaction.

    Marta had tears in her eyes. I went over to the old man and hugged him. My eyes were brimming too.

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