A Vampire, an Answering Machine, a Black Cat, and Yellow Freesias

K. Huebner In the darkness of the bar, under a shrunken head and a sign that said “Dogs Will Be Given To The Chef,” one woman said “Excuse me, are you a vampire?” The second woman didn’t say anything yet, but looked at Theo very carefully from across the table. “I’ve always thought I might meet a vampire if I sat here long enough,” said the first woman. The second woman looked down at her gin and orange juice until it turned into a bouquet of yellow freesias. “For you,” she said, pushing the glass across the table. It was true that when Theo moved back to the United States, he hadn’t expected to be mistaken for a Yuppie. But he also hadn’t expected to want a girlfriend, or to need an answering machine. He had thought he would simply find a place to live, get his cat out of quarantine, and settle down to work. It seemed simple enough, yet somehow things did not prove to be quite so easy. Against his conscious intention, women entered his life and
Originally published in The Sterling Web 10

stayed. He imagined that he could just write letters to them, but they wrote back. He thought he could just kiss them, but they wanted more. “What kind of coffin do you think he sleeps in?” his prospective girlfriends inquired of one another. “He says that all he has is a down sleeping bag.” “That can’t be true; where would he put his wings if he sleeps in a sleeping bag?” “Well, bat wings can be folded up quite small, you know.” “Yes, but bats sleep hanging from the ceiling. Vampires sleep in coffins.” “Well, this one claims he sleeps in a down sleeping bag.” “Oh, he’s just making that up so that we won’t think he’s really a vampire. Wait’ll he takes you home with him and puts you in a nice little coffin lined with Norwegian rat pelts. He’ll put you in the coffin and bite your neck, and the next thing you know he’ll be proposing marriage.” They sighed, contemplating Theo’s beautiful mouth and other delightful features. But mostly, at this juncture, Theo was worrying about his cat being airsick. She kept squirming out of the cat carrier box and attacking his leg, yowling in anguish. “Schwarze Katze!” the airline staff muttered nervously whenever her black fur materialized. The plane tilted with each yowl. “This is the last time I ever take you on a plane,” he said. “Next time you have to get yourself a witch who’ll put you on the back of her broomstick—see how you like that.” “Eeeeyow!” wailed the cat again; the plane turned briefly upside down. Late at night, on a park bench overlooking the city, he asked “How did you know I liked yellow freesias?” “A good guess,” said Jacquetta. They were silent. Then he said “Your mood seems a little stiff. Or maybe self-conscious.”
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“Really?” “Well, not obviously nervous. But not obviously excited either.” “Speak for yourself,” said Jacquetta, turning herself into an odalisque. “You’re rather irresistible, you know,” she added as he looked at her in astonishment. Disentangling himself from her embrace, he said “I’m not sure I’m ready for this.” “Think about it,” she said, leaning forward again and kissing him passionately. He returned her kiss, carefully. “Lipstick and earrings. Mascara and eye shadow. Suspiciously feminine.” He considered her appearance further. “I didn’t think that tomboys wore red.” “Keep thinking,” she said. “Barroom lighting didn’t do you justice.” “Hmm.” She began to untangle his hair and lick his ears. “Gently shaped face,” he continued. “Rather attractive. Bright eyes, but distant. Much too blue to be vulnerable.” “They’re not blue,” she said, “they’re green. But where are your wings?” “At home,” he said, “in a box.” And suddenly he discovered that it was no longer enough just to have a cat, a chopstick collection, and a month’s supply of origami paper, especially when Jacquetta had a telephone, an answering machine, and a bed with red flannel sheets. “I need hangers,” he informed her, “hangers and a broom and dustpan. But they have to be just right. Perhaps black or purple. Not just any old thing.” He took her to the mall, where a hundred different stores glittered above them and fountains played over statuary in the courtyard, and where they lingered over malachite knives and webbed rubber gloves and postcards of wild geese. “Look, a tin of marble wax!” she said. “Look, an eighty-dollar shaving brush!” he said. “I don’t see any hangers or brooms,” she said.
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“All right,” he said then, “let’s go to a store that has hangers and brooms.” So they went to the dime store, but neither of them approved of any of the plastic hangers. “Very drab,” they agreed. “Wooden hangers, hmm,” he said. “Much better. Here, you go pay for them.” He handed her his wallet. Inside there were foreign stamps, a hundred-dollar bill, and a picture of a bat. They took the sacks of hangers and postcards and inflatable sponges into the house, and the cat ran forward with her tail in the air, demanding to be petted. Her tail began to vibrate, like an engine preparing for takeoff. “What does the vibrating tail mean?” asked Jacquetta. “It means she’s exceptionally happy. I think she’s recovered from the flight.” “So it would seem.” “And, of course, she likes you.” After petting the cat and adding the sacks of hangers to the boxes and suitcases on the floor, he took her on a tour of the unfurnished house and they went onto the balcony to look out over the hills. “Look, there’s a little spotted monster tearing up the garbage bags down in the yard!” she exclaimed. “Yes, he belongs to my landlord.” They galloped downstairs and opened the back door, and the little spotted monster bounded up and began to lick their hands. “He’s kind of cute, up close,” she said. “He has very soft fur for a monster.” “That’s because he’s only a baby. He’ll grow out of it and get long sticky hair like all the other monsters.” “What a pity.” They petted the little monster for a long time, until the cat indicated her disapproval and they closed the door. “It’s not as though we neglect you,” he said. In the days that followed, it began to seem as though Theo was
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always either out looking at plates and futons, or wandering into gardens and cafes with Jacquetta. “I think I’ll have to succumb to the modern world and get an answering machine,” he said when he had had a telephone installed and was testing it by calling her, “because it looks like I’m never going to be home when the phone rings.” “Yes,” she agreed, “I’ll be very disappointed if I try to call you and don’t even get a chance to say so. But don’t forget to make sure you can retrieve messages from far away, and all the other standard extras.” “Tell me about these standard extras,” said Theo, “because I’ve never had an answering machine. Just what all can they do?” “Oh,” said Jacquetta, “I imagine that they can do just about anything you want. Answering machines have become very sophisticated these days.” “Well, I want one that’ll make coffee in the morning, so it has to be Italian.” “If you can find one that’ll make coffee in the morning, it’ll probably make your bed too,” she teased. “I don’t even have a bed.” “No, but you will.” “I’m looking for an answering machine with a sense of humor,” said Theo, “not maid service.” “Very well,” said Jacquetta, “I’m sure this can be arranged.” She laughed and changed the subject. That night at dinner, in a Thai restaurant with white tablecloths, Theo refolded all of the napkins into birds. “I would like it,” he said, “if the Flying Squid would fly onto my plate.” “They will,” said Jacquetta, “but you have to know the right words.” “All right, make them fly onto my plate.” “I don’t speak Thai. You have to speak Thai in order to make them fly onto your plate.” They ate the squids. “Tell me,” he said then, “what kind of magic words did you
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want to learn when you decided to study Hungarian?” She blushed. “I don’t think I should divulge that yet.” But after Theo had chosen an answering machine, he called Jacquetta. “It’s amazing,” he said. “It comes with forty different buttons and no instructions. Very challenging.” “Does it make one cup or two?” “Well, I haven’t checked to see how it does on more than one cup at a time. There may be some slight diminution of the quality. But I’m really quite pleased with it.” “And?” “It’s a sexy black aerodynamic model, so I can drive it to work. Besides, it also has little retractable wings so it can fly. I like it very much.” “Doesn’t grit get in the coffee?” “Don’t be silly, I don’t ask it to make coffee while driving.” The answering machine was very odd about taking messages, and initially translated them all into Italian. It was scolded a good deal for this because neither Theo nor any of his friends spoke the rapid slang it fancied. Then it took to translating randomly into different languages according to some whim of its own; he couldn’t figure out just what would set off its Voice Activation to suddenly translate half a message into Welsh or Urdu. The answering machine also had its ways with people it did and didn’t like, which were almost equally annoying. It would say “This is Theo’s answering machine. Please leave a message at the tone,” and then refuse to produce a tone. Or it would call people up and seductively murmur, “Hi, this is Theo’s answering machine. How are you today? I think you ought to leave a message at the tone.” Sometimes it would record long sections of weather broadcasts, and from time to time it would record a deep voice with a Southern accent saying “If you think you have reached this recording in error, please hang up and dial again.” “I don’t know who it dials to get that,” Theo would tell Jacquetta when they lay about in the evening talking on the phone. “Why would it know anyone in the South?” “Why not?” said Jacquetta reasonably. “It calls people
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everywhere else.” “Yes, it does that,” said Theo. “I notice that it does a lot more calling than it does answering. It certainly makes a lot more calls to Europe than I do.” “I suppose that’s only to be expected when you encourage it to take messages in any Romance, Germanic, Slavic or binary machine language.” “Well, maybe that was a mistake, but I thought it would be fun to figure out the messages.” “Isn’t it?” “It was, but it took time away from playing with the cat.” The answering machine and the cat had examined one another, and somehow defined their respective territories, but when Theo bought a CD player, the answering machine became extremely jealous and almost immediately chewed the CD player’s cord into quite a few pieces. “Bad,” he said when he discovered the damage the next morning. “Bad,” he repeated. “Look what you’ve done, you bad answering machine! Look what you’ve done to my new CD player! How are we supposed to listen to Bulgarian music and Depeche Mode if you go around destroying my CD player?” The answering machine was not in the least contrite. “No more cookies and milk at bedtime for you!” he said. “You’re getting to be as bad as the cat,” he said as the cat lolloped down the stairs to see what was going on and positioned herself next to him, vibrating her tail expectantly. He began to pet her. “Yes, you,” he said. “I know about all the trouble you get into when I’m not home, chasing the landlord’s little monster, crawling around inside the walls in the pantry, turning yourself into a toad so that you can sneak up on all the other toads in the garden...” Then he went out to the mall and bought a new cord for the CD player and spent the rest of the day attaching the new cord and hiding its protective copper tubing behind a bookcase. “There, I hope that settles you,” he said.
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The answering machine only looked demurely at him and pretended it had to take a call. “Maybe it doesn’t like Bulgarian music and Depeche Mode,” said Jacquetta. “It can always put on the headphones and listen to the Walkman if it doesn’t want to listen to the CD player with us,” said Theo. “It’s just jealous that I have a new toy and don’t spend all my time tickling it and trying to figure out what it’s done to my messages.” “You’re probably right,” she said. “The messages it leaves me are getting more and more outrageous. The last one demanded that I have my circuiting rewired and my body redone in black and chrome.” “That’s none of its business!” said Theo. “I’m going to have to have a word with this answering machine of mine. You hear that?” he challenged it. “No more commentary on my friends. I don’t care if she would look good in black and chrome, I like her just the way she is.” He turned back to Jacquetta. “Nice hair, lovely eyes, tiny waist, warm skin... Very nice to kiss... Answering machines don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to humans. Answering machines only know about electronic lifeforms.” He looked into her eyes for a moment and then they tilted their heads together and rubbed noses. “Did I tell you that it sneaks out at night and gets together with its littermates from the factory? I’m always finding cryptic little messages about their wild parties. They meet in parking lots and high-tech office buildings, and then they show off how many different tricks they can do, or sit around making obscene phone calls all night.” “When they get tired of doing that, they go to bars that stay open till six a.m.,” agreed Jacquetta, “where the bartenders are used to watching all kinds of things come in and don’t blink an eye at twenty or thirty answering machines rolling in the door together.” Theo looked over at the answering machine again. “You didn’t think we knew all that, did you?” It looked at him as demurely as ever, but he thought he saw its cord twitch.
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“I know what you’re up to,” he said. “So no comments about my friends, okay?” Then when he came home after ordering his new futon, he found that his father had left a message in French saying “Qu’estce que c’est que tu fais avec ce machine? Es-tu un Yuppie?” “That’s pretty unfair,” he said to the cat. “He’s had an answering machine for years!” But his father wasn’t the only one to make such remarks. His friends had already taken to asking “Have you spent your quota for today yet?” And when he bought a wine rack, Jacquetta launched into a long story about two friends of hers: “When Bill passed the bar and started bringing home buckets of money, he started spending it on every form of expensive consumer product known to man. When he brought home a wine rack, I thought Briar was going to pack her bags right then even though she drinks more wine than he does.” “All right, I’ll hide the wine rack!” he said. “I only bought it because I thought it was kind of attractive, but I can see that that’s no excuse.” “Don’t be silly,” she said, “I just want to know when your new bed’s supposed to arrive.” “Mm, and how do you know you’ll get invited over to see it?” “I know because you won’t be able to resist showing me the cover on the futon.” “It is very pretty. It has a black border and butterflies in the middle.” “I like it already, but what will you do when the butterflies fly off the futon?” “Colette will know how to deal with that. Cats are some use, now and then.” “She’s already learned how to shed black hairs on the blanket and lighter hairs on your black sheet,” remarked Jacquetta. “Who said that was useful?” retorted Theo. There was a pause. Then he said “I’ve come to the conclusion that I have no
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idea who you are.” “That’s not surprising,” said Jacquetta. “No, but I find you lacking in all those nice readable details which make me comfortable. Your intentions, sometimes even the meaning of your phrases, are difficult for me to follow. An effort to read. Unpredictable, occasionally disturbing.” “Yes?” “I don’t know if I think we should be romantically involved.” “What do you mean?” Suddenly there was static on the phone. “I mean, how would you feel if we didn’t end up being lovers and were just close friends?” She did not say anything. He said “I think I’m trying to tell you that I love you, but that I’m not sure if I want you to be my girlfriend.” “What?” she said. “Oh.” The static on the phone line increased, and she turned into a hedgehog. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she said, bristling. “It’s all right,” he said, “I like hedgehogs.” Then Jacquetta caught a cold; the ensuing cough kept them both awake at night even when she stayed home. “I think it’s time to look for a new pair of lungs for you,” said Theo through the static on the phone. “Sounds good to me,” she muttered between coughs. “Silk would be nice,” he said. “How about a nice new pair of black silk lungs?” “Pink,” she said. “No, black.” “Black’s not appropriate for new lungs. They have to be pink. You can get me something else in black.” “How about black silk stockings?” “Yes, black silk stockings would be very nice.” He was not sure what he meant by offering her black silk stockings; he kept telling her how attractive she looked, and how sexy, and how fond of her he was, but for some reason she kept taking this as an indication that he wanted her to be his girlfriend,
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and that she had his permission to take off his shirt whenever she felt like it. Now she would probably start thinking that all over again. If only there were some way to keep her a hedgehog, or perhaps a rabbit, or even a little black sheep; but she was inordinately fond of suddenly turning into the odalisque she had surprised him with on the park bench, and was forever wandering about his bedroom wearing nothing but a red towel (or less), or flinging herself upon him as he lay on the floor contemplating quarks or tomatoes. “What do you want from me?” he asked Jacquetta as they sat on her bed eating oranges, her arms and legs wrapped around him as though she were a Hindu goddess. “I could ask you the same thing,” she said. “Your heart’s beating faster. Are you being affectionate or sexual?” “Mm... something in-between.” He looked down. “I was afraid of that.” She remained where she was, saying nothing. After a moment, he said “Why don’t you tell me a story.” “About what?” “About your first abortion.” She thought for a moment, and then said “All right.” After the story, when she had poured them both hot milk with nutmeg, he looked at the cup she had given him. It was brown, with dolphins. He said: “Javier’s was blue, wasn’t it.” “Yes,” she said. “You have a remarkable memory.” “A remarkably perverse one.” He shut his eyes. He knew that she was changing into something, or perhaps changing him into something, and either way it wasn’t necessarily something more comfortable, but he didn’t want to see what. It was enough to know that it was happening; he could feel it happening, though she wasn’t touching him. Maybe his answering machine would call and change or prevent all of this by demanding that she get a plastic body with fiberoptic tubing; but when the phone rang, it wasn’t the answering machine. It was the first woman from the
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bar saying “I’ve heard that vampires don’t need to have sex; they get everything they need from biting people on the neck.” He could hear Jacquetta laughing and saying “I don’t believe that,” and the other woman saying “Why, do you have new scientific proof?” Then he heard Jacquetta stop laughing and say “Maybe. I don’t know. It’s up to him.” And before anything more could happen, before Jacquetta could continue the conversation or hang up the phone or ask him what he thought of all of this, he bent and buried his face in the red flannel sheets they were sitting on; but that didn’t stop anything. It didn’t stop anything at all. And finally he had to get up and go home because he couldn’t stop anything whether he wanted to or not. There was no stopping, no stopping at all. And certainly no turning back. Days passed. “I just washed the tub and you’ve already left pawprints all over it,” he would say to the answering machine when it dragged itself home in the morning. “And what about that dead bird in the living room that Colette totally disclaims responsibility for? Hmm?” He couldn’t understand why it was always wandering around when it was supposed to be securely plugged into the modular phone jack. But it did like to sleep on his bed at night and curl itself up on top of his feet, which didn’t please the cat especially as she thought that was where she ought to sleep. “Is that weight on my feet you or Colette?” Jacquetta would ask around 3 am. “Has to be Colette,” he would reply, “the answering machine’s on mine and won’t let her near.” He realized it was really a good thing that the cat had taken such a liking to Jacquetta. Maybe it had been a sign. “You make the nicest little moaning sounds when I touch you,” he said. “Just like a pigeon cooing.” Then he got up and hung an enormous lantern with sides of gauze, lighting the candle inside as Jacquetta watched from the bed.
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“It’s beautiful,” she said. “It glows like an enchanted lantern in a magic garden, attracting luna moths.” “Yes,” he said, “that’s what I was just thinking.” “I stayed at a house once where there were lanterns like that in the garden,” she said; “at night the demons who lived there left their bodies on their futons while their heads flew around the garden eating insects. I thought it was rather charming until I heard them talking about what a nice breakfast I would be.” “What did you do?” “I drew cats all over the walls, of course.” He touched her hair. “Black cats with white bibs?” “Mostly jaguars and panthers.” He kissed her. “How did you know I liked yellow freesias?” he asked. “A good guess,” she said. “Well, actually I had red tulips in mind, but I had gin and orange juice in my glass.” He thought about this for a moment. “I didn’t think that tomboys wore red.” “The yellow freesias seemed fairly effective,” she said, kissing him lightly. He returned her kiss, less carefully than he once had. “Lipstick and earrings. Mascara and eye shadow. Yellow freesias and red tulips. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have no idea who you are.” “That’s not surprising,” she said. “No, but I find you lacking in all those nice readable details which make me comfortable. Your intentions, sometimes even the meaning of your phrases, are difficult for me to follow. An effort to read. Unpredictable, occasionally disturbing.” “Yes?” “I like it very much.” “Hmm. You’re rather irresistible, you know. But where are your wings?” “Right here,” he said, “under the bed.” In the morning the bed was full of feathers.
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“I must have molted during the night,” she said. “My feathers come loose if I’m not careful.” “I think there’s another explanation,” he said. “But would you like some coffee?” Against his conscious intention, a woman entered his life and stayed. He imagined that he could just write letters to her, but she wrote back. He thought he could just kiss her, but she wanted more. After awhile, he decided that that was all right. END

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