This story might be true.
The jet lag was bad. Tony kept nodding off at the breakfast table. When he was awake, he slurred his words and couldn't remember simple things. He said he left the presentation slides in his room and forgot he'd put them in his suitcase. George and Andy spent thirty minutes looking for them under the bed and in the bathroom while Tony sat in the restaurant sketching the Colossus of Rhodes in the margin of his notebook. When they left the hotel, the three men were already fifteen minutes behind schedule.
To keep Tony awake they stopped at a bar on the Autostrada and made him drink Italian coffee. They pumped him so full of double espressos and anise toasts his entire six-foot-three two-hundred-twenty-pound body vibrated. As he twitched and scratched himself in the back seat of the tiny white Fiat Uno he felt he'd become clairvoyant.
The Uno hurtled down the Italian streets, weaving and bobbing through traffic. "You're going to miss the turn, George!" Tony shouted from the back seat. A blue Lancia cut off the Uno and George had to make another circuit of the roundabout. Tony bored his blue eyes through the back of George's head.
"Just shut up," George said. "You could have driven if you wanted."
Tony giggled. "You're going to spill your juice, boss," he said to Andy as George pulled the little car into a tight left turn and spun into the office parking lot. Andy's aranciata splashed from the bottle into his lap. Tony flipped his handkerchief into the front seat and grabbed his briefcase as George brought the car to a stop.
"Let's do it," Tony said as he bolted from the back seat, his black hair flying wild in the breeze. He slammed the car door shut, and walked to the visitor's entrance as he flattened his hair with his hand. Andy and George got out of the Uno and straightened their suit jackets. Andy swiped at his wet trousers a few times with Tony's handkerchief.
Vincenzo Carilli met them in the visitor's lobby of the office building. He gave each of them a violent handshake, a toothy "Benvenuti," and led them down the fluorescent-lit hallway to the room where they would give the presentations.
"Can I get you anything?" Vincenzo asked as they walked. "Something to eat? A brioche? Maybe some coffee? You must be tired from your long trip."
George and Andy said, "Thank you, nothing."
"Coffee sounds great," said Tony, "I was born for this stuff. I'll have a double. Can I get a triple?"
Vincenzo laughed and said, "We don't make it that way. You could ask for 'due caffe doppio en una tazza.' That means 'two double espresso in one cup.' But you are gonna get a lot of funny looks from people. Nobody takes so much coffee."
"Italy has made a coffee lover out of me," Tony said, grinning.
Vincenzo took them into a small room with one small window at the top of the far wall. In the room there were three old vending machines and a dirty yellow trash can. Vincenzo reached into his pocket and took out a one hundred lire coin. He went to the dirtiest of the three machines and slid the coin into a slot. On the machine were four red buttons. Three were so worn that white plastic showed through in spots. The fourth looked as if it had never been touched. Vincenzo pushed that one.
Vincenzo defended his button choice, "People don't take so much coffee, especially if they're not used to it." The machine made grinding and gurgling noises.
When the machine was finished, Vincenzo took out the small cup and handed it to Tony. "Watch out, she's hot," he said. Then, "Anybody else?" Andy and George were silent as they watched Tony down the brew in two swallows.
"My God," Vincenzo said.
"What happens to him now?" George asked.
Vincenzo answered, "I don't know." Without taking his eyes off Tony's face, he took Tony's empty cup and threw it into the yellow garbage can. Tony stood smiling.
"Maybe you gonna die," said Vincenzo. "People don't take so much coffee." He led them down the hallway to a meeting room and opened the door. Inside, ten people stood chatting. Vincenzo introduced them to the three Americans and asked everyone to take their seats. At the front of the room was a small projector on a table and a screen. Vincenzo dimmed the room lights, stood next to the projector and started the meeting.
"Today, we are honored to have three representatives from the Claridge company here to explain their new products to us. Of course, they remind me that the presentation to you today is a secret. You must not tell this information to anyone outside our company. Okay? So. Good. Mr. Tony Benelli, Director of Marketing for Claridge, will do the talk. Mr. Benelli?" Vincenzo sat.
Tony took his place beside the projector and said, "Thank you, Mr. Carilli." He took the presentation slides from his briefcase. As he placed them on the table next to the projector his hands started shaking. The slides slipped onto the floor. George and Andy sprang to his assistance.
"Just a little shaky," Tony said to the audience, "I guess I drank too much of your fine Italian coffee." The audience snickered.
When they got Tony's slides together, Andy and George sat down and Tony began again. He picked up the first slide with his trembling hands and tried to steady it on the projector surface.
"Claridge is pleased to announce..." he started. But a fully grown doe and two fawns walked into the room. The yellow-tan doe walked up to Tony and licked his hands while the spotted fawns went to the back of the room and began nibbling on the plastic backed chairs. Tony felt his heart race and he jumped backward away from the deer.
"Something the matter?" Vincenzo asked. George, Andy, and Vincenzo stared at Tony, oblivious to the wildlife in the room. The rest of the people in the audience slouched in their chairs, yawned, chewed gum, or doodled on paper.
"Umm, umm," Tony started to say, but the deer spoke.
"Let's dispense with the formalities," the doe said in English with an Italian accent. "Nobody can see me but you. So, you start telling people there are animals in the room they gonna take you to a hospital and lock you away forever. Remember St. Thomas in the tower? Hunchback of Notre Dame? You wanna be like that?"
Tony glanced quickly around the room. George pointed to his watch and made circling motions with his hands to get Tony started. Andy sat with his eyes wide and mouth open. Tony realized he was drooling, and quickly wiped his mouth with his open palm.
"Umm," said Tony again.
"We've heard that already," George said, "why don't you tell them something else?"
The deer spoke, "I'm not going to be here for a long time. I'm here to give you answers. I'm sort of a guardian to you. My name is Anna and these are the kids, Giacomo and Lena. Say 'hi,' kids."
The fawns at the back of the room looked up from their nibbling and said, "Ciao, Tony," then they started chewing on some loose papers in a wastebasket. Andy and George whispered to each other. Vincenzo folded his arms across his chest and began nervously tapping his foot.
Anna said, "Do you remember Elihu from the book of Job? He says, 'For God does speak three times though one perceive it not.' Well, this is number three. I speak for God. Frankly, I don't think you did a very good job the other two times. Let's try again. I'll tell you anything you want to know. The future. Secret of the universe. Answers to the history quiz. When you gonna die. Recipe for the best penne alla arrabbiata you ever ate in your life. Anything you want. Just ask."
"But, but," Tony stammered, "now? Right now?"
"Yes," Vincenzo said, "we only have the room for an hour. Please begin, okay? You have some problem?"
"No problem," Tony said to Vincenzo, his eyes wide.
"I told you not to take so much coffee," Vincenzo said, "nobody ever takes so much coffee."
Tony looked at the deer.
Anna said to Tony, "Yes. Now. This is part of the process. God only promises to talk to you three times in your life. You don't get to pick when. God picks when. Now is your time--the last, I must say again to emphasize. So, choose your question well. We don't have all day."
Tony rubbed his face with both hands. He ran his fingers through his hair.
Andy stood up and walked to Tony. He said aloud to the audience, "Maybe Mr. Benelli needs some help." When he got within range he whispered, "What the hell is the matter? Do you feel okay? You look sick. Let me do this. Sit down."
"I don't have all day," Anna said, "God has other important things to do. There's a whole universe out there to run and he's waiting for you, right now. Let's go big boy."
Tony snapped his head up from the deer to Andy and stared. He said quietly, "Do you see anything strange in the room?"
Andy took a step backward. Tony whispered again through clenched teeth as his face muscles tightened, "I said--can you see anything weird in this room? Like maybe some animals?" People in the audience stopped their idle fidgeting and took notice of the scene at the front of the room.
George joined Tony and Andy at the projector. "He's hallucinating," Andy said to George. "All that coffee fried his brain. Can you get him out of here? I'll do the presentation." George nodded and grabbed Tony's upper arm. Tony pulled away easily from the smaller man, his eyes darting from his colleagues to the deer and back again. He backed into the projection screen like an animal avoiding capture.
"This is not going well," said Anna. "You don't look too prepared."
"This is too important to do now. Can't we wait until I have some more time to think?" Tony pleaded.
Andy commanded George, "Get him out of here. Now." Then he smiled at Vincenzo and the audience and said, "Just a little problem with jet lag. He gets like this every now and then. We'll just take him back to the hotel for some sleep and he'll be okay."
"A hospital," said Vincenzo. "You need to take him to a hospital and have his stomach pumped. I told you people don't take so much coffee at once." Andy grabbed Tony's left arm while George took his right. They pulled him to the door.
"I can't think! I can't think!" Tony shouted as they muscled him out.
Anna whistled for her fawns and followed Tony. "You better think," she said. "You better think right here and right now. God takes this very seriously. Right now he wanna talk to you. You could have been talking to him all this time. Instead, you're jabbering like a monkey. This is the way you account for your life to the creator of everything?"
When they got Tony to the door, George pulled and Andy pushed him out. Andy closed the door and locked it. Tony pulled his arm away from George. Anna and her fawns stood with them in the hallway.
"You tell me you don't see this deer--this one right here," Tony asked George. He pointed to Anna.
George shook his head slowly from side to side. He said, "Come on, buddy. You're sick. Let's go back to the hotel and sleep this off."
"I'm not going anywhere," Tony said, "I'm not going anywhere until you tell me you see this big deer and those two little ones. Can't you hear them talking?"
George glanced quickly up and down the hallway. He spotted someone walking between offices. "Scusa, scusa signore, can you help me?" George asked the man, "Can you call a security guard to help me, please? Per favore? This guy is too big for me. Troppo grande por Io."
Anna said, "Okay. Time's up. This is even worse than the last two times. At least then you asked me something." She started down the hall, the fawns in tow. Tony followed them as they quickened their step. Soon, he was running.
"Wait!" he shouted. "World Peace! Tell me how to bring the world to peace!"
Anna and the fawns stopped. As Tony pulled up panting behind them, Anna turned. "Now there's a stupid question," she said, "That's the kind of unoriginal thinking that got you where you are today. World peace, my eye. Why don't you pray or something like that, eh? World peace. If God wanted world peace, he would have made everyone the same. Now I go." She and the fawns disintegrated.
Tony heard a tone in his ears grow louder. His heart pounded. He struggled to catch his breath, and fell to his knees. He felt sick to his stomach. As sweat broke on his forehead, he felt his palms on the floor. His vision fuzzed to gray. The last thing he felt was the cool floor on his cheek.
Tony woke hot and sweaty in his stuffy hotel room. The sun poured bright light through the closed window. His head pounded with flame. He was still in his business suit. His shoes were still on.
He threw his feet over the side of the bed, put them on the floor, and sat with his head between his legs. At first, he thought he would puke. But he overcame the urge with deep breaths. He reached over, lifted the phone receiver to his ear and dialed "0." He asked the Italian speaking operator for George's room as he loosened his tie and undid his collar button. After some confusion, the operator connected him to someone who seemed to be mad about where he'd parked his car, but he wasn't sure what. He tried again. There was no answer and he hung up. He looked at his watch.
It was three-thirty. George and Andy were probably still out with customers and he was alone. Slowly, he brought himself to his feet and steadied himself by leaning on the furniture and walls. He hobbled to the window, opened it slightly, and took a deep breath of the cooler air that flooded the room. He decided to shower and change his clothes.
In the shower spray, he worried that Andy would mention the incident to the Vice President when they returned. He hoped Vincenzo and his people would be able to dismiss the event. After all, Vincenzo gave him the heaping cup of stimulant. Maybe Vincenzo would take some responsibility for his condition and let it slide. He pressed his forehead to the white shower tile and let the cool water run over his body. He prayed he could keep his job.
Dressed in his jeans, yellow polo shirt and sneakers, he grabbed his notebook and put on his sunglasses. He went downstairs to the hotel cafe to drink a glass of mineral water on the terrace and review his notes. After a few glasses of the sparkling water, his headache subsided and he submitted to the waiter's prodding and ordered a sandwich and a glass of red wine. He sat at the white table in the shade of a red and blue Cinzano umbrella and watched the sun turn red as it passed through his wine like a stained-glass window. A cool breeze brought the sound of a church bell from a distance.
He leafed through a few pages of his notebook. He was unable to keep his thoughts on his work. He took a bite from his sandwich and mindlessly sketched the Duomo di Milano in the margin of a page of notes. After a while, he put down his pencil. He raised the wine glass to his lips, breathed the pungent aroma and took a sip.
When he put the glass down he noticed a large black bear and two cubs approaching him from the hotel parking lot on the other side of a spiked wrought iron fence. He bolted to his feet and knocked the wine glass from the table. It broke on the concrete terrace and splattered wine on his jeans and shoes. He looked quickly from side to side, but there was no one else on the terrace. The bear and cubs jumped over the iron fence and stopped about a meter from Tony's stained feet.
The bear flashed its gleaming white teeth. Sitting, she was as tall as Tony was standing. The bear said, "Sit down." Tony sat, his eyes pinned wide. As his heart quickened, his headache returned.
"Don't worry. It's us again," said the bear, "Anna, Giacomo, and Lena." The cubs said, "Ciao, Tony," and they started wrestling with each other.
"You're a bear now. There aren't any bears in Italy. Why am I seeing this? I only had one sip of wine."
"Ah, my dearest Tony," Anna cooed, "let me help you remember: 'Your young men shall dream dreams, your old men shall have visions.'"
Tony sat silently, unable to collect his thoughts. Anna said, "I wanted to talk to you about this morning. I know it must have been shocking. But that's the way God does it."
"Who the hell are you? Why are you a bear now? Why are you doing this to me?" Tony asked rapid fire.
"So many questions," Anna replied. "You could call me a helping spirit. A long time ago, we were good friends. I've known you since before you were born. I'm a bear because you made me a bear. Last time, you made me a deer. I don't know why I'm a bear. You could have made me an elk or a pigeon. I don't care. I'm not on official business now, I'm in the neighborhood and wanted to say 'hi.'"
Tony took a deep breath. He closed his eyes tight, and opened them. The bear and cubs were still there.
The bear said, "This is harder than I thought. Maybe we should go now. I'll see you when you die. Bye."
As the animals stood to leave Tony felt something cold and hollow grow in his stomach. He felt his eyes glaze. He felt he was losing something warm from his chest.
Tony heard himself say, "Wait. Don't go. Let me work on this a minute."
"Okay. I have some time," said Anna. She turned around, sat, and looked him over. "You've grown. You got a hair cut. Last time I saw you, you had pimples and your hair was down your back. I like you much better this way."
"Thank you," Tony said, rubbing his aching head. "You look much better too."
Anna laughed, "Lie number one. I only look like what you make me look like. Tell me something else. How are you doing?"
"Right now I have a splitting headache and I think I'm going crazy."
"That's typical for you. But that's not what I asked you. I meant how are you doing? Are you happy with life?"
"Yes. Yes, I'm happy. I have a good job. I make good money. I'm seeing a really nice lady back home in California. I have a nice condo in the hills overlooking the valley. Things are looking up."
"Lie number two," said Anna. "You have to listen to me. I didn't ask you what you had, I asked you about you. You want to know the truth? You're miserable because you're not doing what you came here to do. You buried yourself in this hunt for money and you lie every time you look in the mirror. I'm very disappointed in you."
Tony slapped his hand on the table and looked into the distance. "What is this?" he said, turning back to Anna. "You ask me things, I give you the answer, you say I'm lying. Why don't you just tell me what you want to tell me and go away."
Anna said, "Is this any way to treat an old friend? Look Einstein, I'm not here for my health. I'm immortal. I'm doing it for you, but you treat me like this every single time."
"What every time?" Tony said leaning forward. "You keep bringing this up, these other times. What other times? I don't remember any other times. You mean you've done this to me before?"
"Yes. And I don't understand how you can keep putting our meetings so far out of your mind," Anna said. "The first time we met in this life of yours, you were seven years old. You were standing in the middle of a deep pond in the rain balancing on a piece of wood. You said I looked like the rooster on the Corn Flakes box. You asked God if you could have a Major Matt Mason teleport space station for Christmas. Not an inspirational question, but typical of a seven-year-old with your background.
"The second time was when you were seventeen. You were taking a shower in the boy's locker room at your school after football practice. You said I looked like Farah Fawcett and you begged God to make Becky Harkins have sex with you senior prom night. Also a typical request."
"So?" Tony asked, "What good did you do? I didn't get either of those things."
"What did you expect? You think God is some kind of cosmic pimp or merchandise retailer? Of course he said 'no.'"
Anna said, "And now look at you. You haven't changed a bit. You're wasting your time down here. You could get hit by a truck tomorrow and not lose anything."
Tony sat back in his chair, "That's horrible. You say my life is
worthless. That's probably the worst thing anyone ever said to me."
"Stop whining. I didn't say your life was worthless. All life has value. You brought happiness to your mama and your papa when you were born. You made your friends and teachers happy when you were in school. Remember that little girl you had a crush on in sixth grade and rescued from the bullies who wouldn't let her get on the school bus?"
"The one that ran away while I got the crap beat out of me?"
"Yes, that's the one. Well, she's gonna invent a cure for Alzheimer's disease."
"I'm happy for her," Tony said sarcastically.
"If it wasn't for you, she might have lost all her faith in mankind and become a tractor mechanic."
"So what? So tractor mechanics don't have faith in mankind?" said Tony.
"You're not thinking. Shut up and think. You helped free her to do what she wanted to do most, what she was supposed to do."
"Look, Anna," Tony said and sighed. "I don't know what this is all about. I feel great, really. Come visit me in California. Bring the kids. It's sunny all the time and we can go in the pool."
Anna stood up on all fours. The cubs got up and started for the parking lot. She said, "You have to stop playing games and get to work, Tony. God gave you a chance today to talk directly to him. It was your last chance in this life. But you weren't prepared. You were so wrapped up in your game you told him to get lost. Think, paisano. Think of da Vinci, Genghis Khan, Hemingway. They were all prepared when their guardians spoke to them for God. What did you do? You told God himself to jump in a lake. He's pretty angry with you now. If I were you, I'd lay low for a while. Stay out of churches, mosques, synagogues, and lightning storms for a few weeks. Let him cool off. Then ask for forgiveness." Anna began to follow the cubs to the fence.
"Wait. Wait," Tony stood and shouted to her. "I didn't tell God to get lost. I asked about a solution for world peace. I really meant it."
"Yes, I know. Isn't it a shame?" Anna said.
Tony heard the sound of tinkling glass under his feet. He looked down and saw a broom darting between his feet. He turned and saw a balding mustachioed waiter sweeping. When he looked out to the parking lot again, Anna and the cubs were gone.
Tony blushed. He said to the waiter, "I was just. I was talking..."
"Signore, whatever you like. It's okay with me. You wanna talk to the air, that's fine with me. Me, I'm only the waiter. You can do whatever you want. Me, I talk to the air and it's, 'Go away, Mario, to another hotel for work.' You want more wine?"
Tony sank into the patio chair. The sun had become red and heavy and had fallen into the trees. "No thanks, Mario," he said. He slouched, put his elbow on the table, and rested his aching head in his hand. He was still sitting there an hour later when the sun set and the mosquitoes woke for breakfast.
George and Andy arrived at the hotel by nine o'clock. They were tired and sweaty. As soon as George got to his room, he called Tony and asked how he was. But George didn't wait for the answer. He told Tony the remaining customer visits had gone okay without him, but Andy felt they lacked Tony's expertise. He said they would have to go back to those accounts and redo the presentations the following month. Tony listened silently, speaking only to agree to meeting them for dinner.
While he waited for his colleagues, he turned on the television and listened to shows in Italian, which he couldn't understand. He lay on his stomach on the bed and sketched the Mayo Clinic in the margins of his notebook pages.
By ten o'clock, George and Andy had showered and shaved. They met Tony in the hotel restaurant and the three sat for dinner. The restaurant was crowded for Thursday night; there were only a few empty tables. Tony felt happy the restaurant was dimly lit. He still wore the wine splattered jeans and sneakers.
George took a bread stick out of the white vase at the center of the table and bit into it. To Tony he said, "My friend, you really had us going. I thought I would have to call an ambulance. In this country, God knows what they would have done to you."
"Don't worry," Andy added, "you haven't hurt the account. I spoke to Vincenzo after George brought you back to the hotel and he was all apologies. He feels responsible because he gave you such a big cup of coffee. He'll probably send you flowers." Andy chuckled.
Tony sat silently with his hands in his lap, his eyes focussed to infinity as he stared into the endless white depth of the linen tablecloth.
"You're okay now, right?" George asked Tony.
"Look at him, he's fine," said Andy.
Tony looked up and said, "Yeah, I'm fine."
Andy asked, "Are you going to be all right at Thomson tomorrow? I don't want to bring you in there if you're going to pass out on me."
Tony looked past George and Andy and scanned the other diners. A waiter came and handed each of them a menu, filled three glasses with mineral water, and left them to make their dinner choices.
Tony folded his menu, "I'm not really that hungry. I think I'm going to hit it early."
"Are you coming into Thomson with us or not? If not, you might as well change your flight and go home tomorrow," Andy told him.
"Yeah, I'm going to Thomson tomorrow. Okay?" Tony snapped.
Andy sat back in his seat looking surprised. "What's gotten into you?" he asked.
Tony looked up from the table. "It was pretty bad." He tapped his heel against the floor. An emptiness in his stomach got bigger. The vision of Anna, so shocking at first, had left a loneliness in him. He felt he had finished reading a good book. It was a story he didn't want to end.
Tony pushed himself back from the table and stood. He swallowed and took a deep breath and said all at once so as not to have his voice falter, "Look, guys, I'm going to get some sleep. What time do we meet tomorrow? Breakfast at six-thirty? Seven?"
Then he heard Anna order a prosciutto e melone appetizer. His body stiffened as he looked around the room.
"Let's make that seven-fifteen," Andy replied, "I want to try to get some extra sleep tonight."
Tony turned, expecting to see an animal in the restaurant. But there was nothing unusual about the clientele.
"Did you hear me?" Andy said. "Is seven-fifteen okay with you?"
"Yeah, yeah, its fine," said Tony, hungry for the voice. Anna ordered risotto al quattro formaggi for her first course. Tony homed in on the voice like an owl to a field mouse.
Anna's voice came from the body of a beautiful young woman with chestnut brown hair that fell in lazy curls over her shoulders. She was thin, and wore a short form-fitting alarm-red dress. She sat alone in the candlelight at a table for four. Tony stood and stared at her as she ordered scaloppine for her second course and broccoli for vegetable. She closed her menu and returned it to the waiter. The waiter produced a bottle of red wine and filled her glass half way with the ruby liquid and left.
Tony stood transfixed.
"Will you look at this," Andy said thumping George on the arm with the back of his hand. "He's in love."
George looked from Tony to the woman and back again. George said, "Looks like our boy's been having himself a good time while we were out working our butts off for king and company. No wonder he's so tired now."
"Who's the lady?" Andy asked Tony.
"A friend of mine," Tony answered quietly, "I wonder where the kids are." Slowly he walked to the woman's table, his eyes locked on her as if radar driven. He wove around intervening tables and diners without diverting his gaze.
When he got to her table she looked up at him with surprise. Then she broke out into a wide grin and said, "Tony Benelli! Imagine meeting you here. What are you doing here? How are you? It's great to see you again. How have you been?"
Tony asked, "Anna, is this really you? I mean, is this the real you?"
She stared at him a second, her smile fading. She pinched herself on the cheek and said, "In the flesh. I can't look that different. Is that really you?"
"I was just thinking about the way you looked this morning versus now," he said.
"Oh," she said, "were you at the convention? Did you see my paper?"
Tony felt something solidify and open a cold hollow space in his
stomach. "I'm making a mistake," he said and started to leave.
"Wait," she said, "don't run away. Please. Stay a few minutes and talk. I just couldn't stand to hang around the Milano convention center and talk to those stuffed shirts about arteriosclerosis any more. Come on. It's good to see someone from the old neighborhood."
Tony sat down. A waiter came by and put a plate of transparent thin prosciutto and green melon in front of Anna. He refilled her wine glass and offered a menu to Tony. Tony held up his palm and shook his head.
"Oh, won't you eat with me? I hate eating alone," Anna said.
"No, really. Thanks, but I'm not feeling too well. I had a very bad day."
"Oh I'm sorry to hear that," she said as she pierced a slice of melon with the tip of her fork. She gently wrapped a slice of prosciutto around the melon and brought it to her mouth. "I'm supposed to be a vegetarian, "she said. "The melon makes it legal."
"You do that like a surgeon," said Tony. Anna took a sip of red wine.
"A lot more money in surgery than research," Anna said. "Sometimes, I wish I were cutting out tonsils instead of feeding peanut butter to rhesus monkeys. I just hope this breakthrough can bring in another grant or two."
"Breakthrough?" Tony said as Anna prepared another fork full of melon and prosciutto.
"Oh, I forgot. Last time we talked the data were so preliminary I couldn't say anything. But we think we have it. We think we've isolated the protein that will inhibit the effects of Alzheimer's disease."
Tony nodded as a shiver ran up his spine. "That's great. That's really great," he said calmly. Anna chewed.
"Some enthusiastic response I get from you," she said, taking another sip of wine.
"No. No. That's really great. I really mean it. That's wonderful. When did we meet last?" Tony said.
Anna ignored the question. "But how about you? How's the career change coming? How did the separation with your company go? I know you were worried about it. How do you like architecture?"
The words were like golden bullets fired from himself. They were his deepest thoughts manifest in reality. How did she know what he wanted most in the world? It was like she'd come from something he dreamed.
"Architecture? Career change. I'm, well...you know, I hate to say this but I've been on the road so much; when was the last time we talked?"
Anna finished her appetizer. She put her knife and fork on the empty plate, lifted her napkin from her lap and delicately blotted her mouth with the corner. "I'm not sure how to take that question. I'm not sure I should be insulted or not."
Tony lifted his hand to his forehead. He said, "I'm sorry. It's not you. It's me. It's all the travel. The stress. I know I've gone completely insane. I'm just rolling with it now. Sometimes I think I'd forget my own name if it wasn't printed on my notebook."
"I know how it is when you're working hard," Anna said, "Do you have any sketches of your latest project with you? I'd really like to see your new designs. I really loved the work you did for the university. The sketches were amazing." Anna's dark brown eyes sparkled and her face glowed with candle fire, absorbing him.
Tony felt the hollowness in his stomach fill with warmth. It was as if the past he'd imagined himself to have had taken on its own life and become real. The sounds of the other diners disappeared: replaced by the sound of Anna's voice. He felt the muscles in his neck and chest relax. The warmth rose from his gut to his head. He forgot his questions.
He thought of the feeble drawings that filled the margins of his notebook, the folios he had hidden behind the couch in his living room back at his apartment in the states. He tapped his fingers nervously on the table cloth. "Drawings. No," he lied, "I left them at the office."
"Oh, I get it. You only show your sketches to women you are interested in spending the night with? A little, 'Come upstairs and look at the etchings...' hm? All the same, you know how much I love your work," Anna said. The waiter came and removed her empty dish and refilled her wine and water glasses.
"She loves my work," he said to the waiter. These words started a fire, "She loves my work."
The skeleton of a pyramid sketched itself white on black in his mind. Under the pyramid they embraced. His warmth became her body. He felt the pulsing of her heart against his chest, the strands of her hair across his face. With a thought he covered the pyramid with glass; on the glass he engraved pictures of great kings. The sun rose above a desert horizon illuminating the sky to blue, wisps of clouds from black to brilliant white, the desert sand from gray to bright yellow. Anna looked into his eyes and opened her mouth to speak; he knew she would be proud of what he had built.
Suddenly there was an electronic beeping noise. The glass pyramid disintegrated and the restaurant took its place. Anna unclipped the beeper from her belt. She silenced the beeping and examined the display on the beeper's face.
"Are you hungry?" she asked Tony. Tony shook his head. He was too full of lights and pyramids to eat.
"That's too bad. All this food is going to waste. I'm sorry I can't stay. I have to run. I've registered with a hospital in downtown Milano. I have to run in and show them some of the techniques we perfected back in the states. I hope you understand."
Tony nodded, silently.
Anna reached over and grabbed a small leather purse. She put in her beeper and took out a small book. On the cover of the book, Tony saw a picture. It was a picture of a stream flowing through a meadow covered with mats of wildflowers. In the distance a snow capped mountain loomed, ringed by clouds. A deer and a black bear drank from the stream.
Anna opened the book and wrote. Without looking up she said, "Are you back in the states by April? I'm going back on Thursday after the convention. Can we get together on the weekend of the ninth?"
Tony shrugged. "Why not?" he said.
She wrote in her book again. Then she tore out a page, folded it several times, and pushed it under his hand. "So you won't forget like last time," she said. She stood up and said, "I'll give you a call Friday the eighth." She took some money from her purse to put on the table, but Tony made her put it back. She politely submitted to his chivalry and waved to him as she hurried out.
Tony sat quietly at Anna's table, watching the other diners eat and listening to the Italian conversation drift. When the waiter came, he charged her dinner to his room.
Then, he carefully unfolded the paper. On one side of the paper there was an outline sketch of the same mountain scene on the cover of Anna's appointment book. On the other side of the paper was a calendar for the month of April. The weekend of the ninth was circled. Within the circle were the words, "You better be ready. You won't get another chance." Tony smiled as the warmth in his stomach erupted to volcanic sunshine, flowed upward to his head and spilled down into his legs. He floated to his feet and moved like dust over the floor. He needed to walk. Anywhere.
In his mind he built a castle of obese brown-grey boulders. He built ramparts and towers, circled it with a moat, and filled the moat with jellyfish. He built a drawbridge of solid ebony bolted with thick wrought iron plates and hung it on anchor chains from a battleship. On the highest tower he flew his pennant. Overhead, Leonardo da Vinci flew on his ornithopter. The Wright brothers zoomed by in their flyer and waved. He tipped his hat to Wernher von Braun and saluted Eiffel's lady.
Leonardo landed on the castle and shook his hand.
"We've been calling you all this time," Leonardo said to him, "I thought you were deaf."
"Huh?" said Tony.
"Are you deaf?"
Leonardo evaporated. He saw Andy instead.
"Hey, big fella," Andy called, smiling, "Are you deaf? Who was the babe? Your mother?" Andy waved him over to the table where he and George were eating.
Tony smiled and walked to Andy's table and said, "I think I'm going to change my reservation and go home tomorrow."
Andy face relaxed from the smile. He said, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. You look much better now. At least you're smiling. Well, go home and get better. I'll see you in the office on Monday."
"I may not be in on Monday either," Tony said, "I think I'm going to take some of that vacation I've got saved, get checked out, relax a little. I think I'm burning out."
"What about Thomson?" Andy asked. "If you don't go with us tomorrow, they're going to expect a report from you early next week."
"I don't know. I don't know what to do about them," Tony answered.
"Look, guy, this doesn't look good. You've got to help me out," Andy pleaded. Tony glanced at George. George looked down toward his plate, intent on his food.
Tony said, "I'm sorry Andy. You do what you have to do. I'm no use to anyone like this. I've got to take some time to straighten myself out."
Andy sighed. To George he said, "Can you believe this guy is going to leave us holding the bag?"
"Let him go," George said and took a drink of mineral water, "He's falling apart. Let him rest."
Andy looked up to Tony standing over him. He lowered his voice and said calmly, "I can't let you do this. Not now. I need you."
"I'm really sorry you feel that way," Tony said to Andy. He extended his hand to George. George wiped his mouth with his napkin and shook hands with Tony. George said, "See you. Good luck to you. I had fun working with you. "
"You can't go. I won't approve the vacation time," said Andy.
"Good bye," said Tony. He offered his hand to Andy, but Andy turned away.
"I can't believe you're going to leave me like this," Andy said to the table.
"I can't believe you're asking me to stay," Tony said. He waved as he left the restaurant. In his room, he called the airline and changed his reservation. He packed his garment bag and turned on the television.
He didn't understand the TV show; it was in Italian. He lay on the his stomach on the bed and opened his notebook to a clean page. Choosing a suitable point for perspective at the center of the page, he started to sketch a new home for himself in the meadow by the stream.