The SeparationRonald Malfi
The Separation © 2011 by Ronald Malfi
Cover Artwork © 2011 by Zach McCain
All Rights Reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
P.O. Box 338
North Webster, IN 46555
Author Aknowledgements: Special thanks to the fantastic author Darren Speegle for his assistance with some of the German words and details throughout this text. Any misuse of terminology or cultural misrepresentations is, of course, entirely my fault.
Demitris, that unreliable son of a bitch, was late picking me up at the Kaiserslautern station by a good two hours, so I suffered an exhaustive morning at a railway café, drinking Eiskaffee and attempting to divide my attention between the massive huddle of commuters filing off a train from Mainz and my own luggage at my feet in an attempt to thwart any lurking cretins from walking off with it. It was a cool spring day, but my patience was growing thin with each furtive glance at the enormous wall-mounted clock above the station entrance. Damn that Demitris. (Of course, I had no one but myself to blame. I could have paid my own cab fare into the city despite Demitris’s insistence that he would pick me up.) Now, sitting here, sweating inside the collar of my dress shirt, I could only regret my decision. I wanted a shower, some lunch, possibly a nap. The train ride had been long and I felt the day growing heavy all around me.
Extracting my portfolio from my luggage, I quickly went to work editing a paper I had been laboring over for the past several weeks, a publication deadline looming ever closer on the horizon. It was a curious case of a young married couple in North London who had simultaneously fallen into mutual yet completely unrelated states of depression. They had become lethargic and uninspired and, just recently, both had been fired from their respective jobs. A curious case, indeed, and I was once again intrigued at how different the studies in London were from my cache of clients waiting for me back in the States.
After glancing for the millionth time at my watch, I ordered a bottle of Trimbach and continued to immerse myself in my work. I was three-quarters done with the bottle when I thought I heard someone shouting my name. I looked up. Demitris, the fool, had materialized near the train platform, customarily disheveled and aloof in an oversized canvas coat, his dark hair a bonfire of wild twists and corkscrews and curlicues. He was looking straight at me.
I stood and waved. Demitris’s lips twisted into a toothy grin and I thought he was surely going to trip over his oversized boots in the haste of hurrying in my direction. Approaching, I could not tell if he anticipated a brotherly hug or a formal handshake. I settled for somewhere in between with a hearty shake and a one-handed clap on the back.
“You must hate me,” Demitris went off. “It’s been two hours, Marcus, and you must have been sitting here hating me for all that time.”
“I’m sure it couldn’t be helped,” I afforded him.
“It’s just, Charlie, he’s—well, there’s been this whole bloody thing and, well, you see—what I mean is—”
“Forget about it. I assume we will be going straight to Charlie’s loft?”
“Well, Charlie’s not at the loft, Doc.”
“He’s staying at the farm now.”
“He said he couldn’t stay at the loft, Doc.”
“You’ll have to ask him that yourself.”
I gathered my bags and followed Demitris down the concourse toward his automobile. It was a black Rolls Royce, handsome and chrome-shiny: one of Charlie Pronovella’s cars. It was not unusual for Demitris to be driving one of Charlie’s cars; what was unusual was the twisted tinsel of the rear bumper and the ragged crater torn into the trunk.
“What happened?” I asked.
“To the car?”
“Did someone hit it?”
“He did it himself, the damn fool,” said Demitris. He opened the trunk and took my bags from me, dumping them inside.
We drove for some time, mostly in silence, through the narrow streets of the city. Kaiserslautern was an attractive metropolis, newly modern, situated in the middle of the Palatinate Forest. It boasted a rather unique mix of military bases and historic inns and grottos dating back to the early 1700s. Passing through Old Town, it was easy to see over the diminutive roofs of the quaint homes and shops, and I could make out dark, looming thunderclouds threatening the horizon. As we drove, I thought of Charlie and my reasons for coming here to be with him now. I could only imagine what the past few months had been like for Jerry Lieder, Charlie’s manager, who had, during our cursory telephone conversation two days earlier, professed his bitter resolve to remain with poor Charlie Pronovella until this whole mess resolved itself—“in one fashion or another,” Jerry had added dejectedly before hanging up. While he hadn’t expressed the specifics of his concerns at that time, the mere tone of the man’s voice was enough to prompt me to phone my travel agency immediately after, without hanging up the receiver in between.
Imagine a structure of New England coziness but with the audacious imposition of the grandest Victorian mansion, replete with spires and domes and arcades and rustic parapets, surrounded by an awe-inspiring panorama of the looming, formidable Rathaus and the breathtaking botanical gardens, and you will be imagining the compound in which I resided for my duration in Kaiserslautern. My room was small but adequate, equipped with a marble balcony that projected out above a winding cobblestone road. Leaning against the balustrade, one could view the comings and goings of the local bourgeois far down below in the crook of the valley, shuffling through the St-Martins-Platz, filtering in and out of the narrow columns of bistros, cafés, and restaurants, their taunts and playful shouts like the laughter of ghosts following you into each night’s slumber.
Dubbed “the farm” by Charlie Pronovella many years back when he had first purchased the compound, the house was removed from the rest of the city, raised on a sloping escarpment and preceded by a regiment of pear trees that seemed to go on for at least a mile. There stood an expansive plane of bright yellow flowers at the rear of the house that were very pretty to look at but, upon drawing nearer, gave off a nasty, pungent odor. There was also a barn to the east and a stable at the back of the house where, at one time, the Pronovellas had kept horses and, I believe, some chickens. A motorcade of historic and refurbished automobiles—Charlie’s pride—had once claimed the east barn but, as the Rolls Royce pulled into the long gravel driveway, I could see through the barn’s agape double-doors that it now stood completely empty.
Entering the house was like walking onto a movie set that had not been fully constructed. While this effect was justified by the obvious lack of furniture and domestic accoutrements in the main parlor, it was heightened moreover by the sense of emptiness, of sheer vacancy that permeated the entire residence and seemed to rush up and gather about me in a suffocating fashion the moment I stepped through the front door. Like walking into a vacuum-sealed chamber.
“Where is everything, Demitris?” I asked, setting my bags down in the foyer.
“Gone,” Demitris said simply, coming up behind me.
“The lady, she came and cleared nearly everything out.”
r /> As I should have suspected.
“He’s in bad shape, isn’t he, Demitris?”
“Well, Doc,” he said, “he isn’t good.”
I sighed. “Where’s Jerry?”
“The Aston Martin was gone when we pulled up. Maybe he went to the market. Or maybe he managed to get the poor bastard out of the house for some fresh air.”
“What happened to the other cars?”
Demitris regarded me with impatience as he gathered up the bags I had set down.
“Oh,” I said quickly, “right. Sure.” The lady, I thought.
“Place smells bad,” Demitris said quietly, carrying my bags through the house and up the stairs to the second floor. I followed close behind, marveling at how much larger the house looked now that it had been gutted and sterilized.
“When did he move in here?”
“Two days ago,” Demitris said. “Jerry went crazy looking for him at the loft, down at the gardens, at his favorite café—he looked all over. Then he called me and we came here as a last resort.” Demitris made a rough, phlegm-filled chortle deep within his throat. “Should have guessed.”
“But what is he doing, Demitris?”
“Losing his mind,” Demitris said with simple deduction.
Forty-five minutes later, having returned to my room after a long, steaming shower in the bathroom down the hall, I dressed quickly in a pair of clean slacks and a fresh linen shirt. I poured myself a cup of coffee from the carafe Demitris had brought up while I’d been showering. It was strong and good. Opening the balcony doors, I stepped onto the veranda. The air was scented with lilac and pear trees and, just beneath it all, one could identify the faint static tingling of an oncoming storm. I could see the sky darkening as the daylight bled away behind the distant trees. I could see, too, that the Aston Martin was back in the gravel driveway. On the heels of this, I observed movement in my peripheral vision, down the slope of the yard toward the east barn. I saw what must have been Charlie Pronovella dip around the graying, bone-colored side of the barn and disappear. The urge to shout his name suddenly came to me, but I quickly stifled it.
Downstairs, I found Jerry Lieder fixing some drinks upon an otherwise barren countertop in what had once been a lavishly furnished parlor. Now, however, in the wake of all that had transpired, the only monuments to civility were a few tattered armchairs, a chipped and faded credenza, a halogen lamp in one corner, and—most noticeable—an enormous oil portrait of Gloria in a gilded frame, wearing an old-fashioned bonnet and sundress, her head turned slightly outward, pointed chin protruding just the slightest bit, her eyes like two chips of obsidian. She was smiling conspiratorially and looking out over the empty room.
“I guess she decided to leave the carpet,” I said, shaking Jerry’s hand.
“Hello, Marcus. Your trip wasn’t too weary, I hope.”
“It was fine.”
“Demitris said he was late getting to the station. I’m sorry about that.”
I waved a hand. “Forget it.”
“You’ve been enjoying London?”
“It’s peaceful. Boston was getting very stressful.”
“Under everything. I was evaluating ten, sometimes twelve patients a day for a while.”
“Lord,” said Jerry.
“Young men, all of them. Boys, really. It’s surprising how many wanted to go back.”
“Not Iraq,” I said. “They didn’t want to leave their friends over there by themselves. Of course, there were enough who didn’t want to go back, too.”
“I would imagine,” Jerry said. “So what did you do?”
“I evaluated them, cleared them, sent them back. Boston is run like a machine, Jerry. We process more patients there in a week than I believe London sees in a month.”
Jerry sighed. “Everything’s become a process, hasn’t it? But I know you’re good, Marcus. And a friend. That’s why—Charlie—well, he’s—”
“What’s going on, Jerry?”
Jerry Lieder handed me a glass of scotch and we crossed the parlor and sat opposite each other in the room’s two remaining armchairs. Jerry lit a cigarette and offered me the pack, which I declined politely.
“You know most of it already,” he said. “Charlie’s been a mess since she left. He’s entitled to some of it, especially in the beginning, but it’s been three months now, Marcus, and he’s not getting better. Quite the contrary, in fact. The past few days he’s been at his worst. It’s all I can do just to get him to eat every day. He’s become obsessed with his misery and I’m afraid he won’t be able to return from his own madness if he lingers in those waters much longer.”
“Why is he here?”
“You mean here on the compound? Demitris and I found him here two days ago, after hunting around for him all over the city like a couple of dogs. He said he needed to be here, that he was losing himself back at the loft.”
“That the loft felt strange and uninviting to him, and that he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. We tried to get him to go back there but he refused.”
“He really shouldn’t be here,” I said. “Legally, I mean.”
“I know,” said Jerry, “and he knows, too. But he’s in no frame of mind to listen to reason. I swear, Marcus, I’ve seen him bad before, but never like this. Never.”
My eyes trolled about the room. The entire house was symbolic of their marriage now, it occurred to me: empty, devoid, ruined, a husk of what it had once been. Uncomfortably, my eyes settled on the portrait of Gloria above the stone hearth. Her eyes bothered me. They looked real—as if she were watching me and listening to our conversation right at this very moment.
“How come she didn’t take the portrait?” I asked.
“That thing?” Jerry said, craning his neck and peering over his shoulder at it. “She hated that thing. It had been Charlie’s idea to have it commissioned. No doubt she’s probably thrilled to be rid of it. You know how Charlie is, Marcus. Goddamn Charlie.”
“Where is he?”
“Out in the yard.”
“Do you—do you think someone should be watching him?”
Jerry sighed and leaned forward in his chair, his glass of scotch held in two hands between his knees. “Honestly, Marcus, I don’t know. He’s been so out of touch the past two days. He’s talking funny, too, saying strange things. That’s why I called, really.” He shook his head. “Yesterday, once I realized Charlie was not going to go back to the loft, I returned for him to gather some of his things—some clothes and books and whatnot—and what I saw when I got there really bothered me.” He eyed my drink. “More scotch?”
“I’ll get it,” I said, rising and moving to the bar. “Please, go on, Jerry.”
“Thing is,” Jerry continued, “I really don’t know quite how to say it and do it any justice. You had to be there to see it firsthand, is what I mean. Because, well…you see, he had gotten rid of nearly everything in the place—chairs, his sofa, any furniture, the goddamn kitchen table. This was all new stuff, Marcus. He bought it after he moved into the loft following the separation, because everything else either belong to Gloria or belonged to both of them. So this was new stuff, and he’d just gotten rid of it. I asked him later and he said he couldn’t remember getting rid of the stuff. Well, I told him he must have done it, and I asked him how he’d managed to haul off the bigger items, like the kitchen table and the bed frame on his own—he had no bed, Marcus!—and he said he had no memory of doing any of it.”
My drink replenished, I sat back down opposite Jerry, still overly aware of the glaring eyes of the portrait peering down on us from the wall.
“There were still a few items,” Jerry went on. “There was food in the cupboards and there were piles of clothes on the floor and, for whate
ver reason, he’d gotten rid of the sofa but kept the sofa cushions.”
“Did he explain why he did this?”
“That’s just it, Marcus. He can’t remember doing any of it.”
“Have you witnessed him exhibiting any signs of self abuse?”
“You mean, have I caught him trying to kill himself? No. But Marcus, like I said on the phone, I’m at the end of my rope here with this whole mess. What am I supposed to do?”
“You did the right thing by calling me.”
“Well, you two have been friends for a long time. I didn’t think it could hurt.”
“We haven’t seen each other in some time, though,” I said, a bit ashamed at the truth of it. “In fact, I’m a bit surprised he didn’t come in to greet me when—”
“Oh, he doesn’t know you’re here.”
I frowned. “What’s that?”
“I didn’t tell him you were coming,” Jerry said. “I didn’t tell him I even called you. He doesn’t know.”
While this troubled me to a degree—it is, I firmly believe, in poor professional standing to initiate any encounter with a client on the basis of false information or what might be construed as an act of trickery—I had to silently remind myself that Jerry was not a therapist and was only doing what he thought best for Charlie. Also, I had to keep in mind that Charlie Pronovella was not necessarily a patient but, rather, a friend who just happened to require my professional expertise.
“Listen, Marcus,” Jerry said now, the tone of his voice slightly altered, though to such a degree that it was difficult to notice at first, “Charlie needs to understand that this is not only interfering with his day-to-day life, but his whole career is on the line here. He hasn’t been training in months and he’s picked what’s possibly the worst time imaginable to drop off the face of the planet. In this business, if you’re not constantly making headlines as an up-and-comer, then there is no hope for you. I couldn’t get him a decent fight now without signing over my firstborn son. Not that I would book him a fight now anyway; I’m amazed the man is standing on his own two feet at the moment, and can’t imagine putting him in the ring with anyone.” He looked worried and upset. He had a lot to say, I could tell, but did not possess the ability to say it all as he thought it should be said. Instead, he just looked forlornly at me as if silently pleading for me to rectify this tragedy. “He just needs to know the severity of all this,” Jerry said, much softer now. “He needs to know that he’s now put everything he’s worked for in jeopardy.”