In three hundred forty five words I will be hated. In one hundred nine sentences I will become a criminal. In fifty five paragraphs I will fall in love.
Minutes, hours, days. I have run out of food and tobacco.
The moment I close the door to my flat, my next-door neighbor appears, as if she had been waiting. She is ruddy and blonde and hefty and wears a ponytail and an apron with a frilly trim and I dislike her.
Wat het jy gedoen? she calls to me, holding a rolling pin, a fatfold in her wrist, all of her but one of her feet visible in the threshold of no. 8.
Wat het jy gedoen? she barks again. Wat is al wat skree? Is daar iemand wat bly met jou?
I turn the key in the lock and respond, Ah, the noise. Yes indeed I do have someone staying with me.
Half facing away, I answer, Her name is Electra.
She pats the rolling pin like a billy club. ‘N vriendin?
Girlfriend? Of a kind, I suppose.
She points the rolling pin at my chest. Is sy nou hier woon? Is dit hoekom jy die hondjie?
I reply, Yes, she does live here now, but the puppy came first. She did not make me get a puppy; she does not make me do anything. What she does do is make a lot of noise. A fact, really. I hope it’s not something you can’t live with.
She punches the rolling pin above her head like the hammer of Thor. Sy is te hard! Sê vir haar om stil te bly! Ek kan nie slaap nie! Ons kan nie dink! Jy vertel haar dat!
At this, I take my hand from my pocket and hold it out to her, twisting my wrist, fanning open my fingers, telling her, Electra can be as loud as she wants, and if you want to keep that stick of yours you’ll go back inside and mind your own business, Mrs. Boerenpummel.
(Boerenpummel, n., yokel. Afrikaans, from Dutch, boer ‘farmer’ and pummel ‘boor.’)
Her eyes nearly cross. Whoa! she whispers before slamming shut the door.
I leave. I travel, and considering this exchange, I wonder if I just did right by the rules of the Enchiridion.
I place peaches, bread, and milk into my basket to make pudding for dinner. Pistachios for Electra.
Está a xogar? the butcher asks.
No I’m not kidding.
Moe-lo? O bisté?
Yes, just put it through the grinder.
Cinco quilos de file mignon?
Yes. Has no one ever asked you to make dog food before?
As far as days go, even those of these bones, this one is trying. I fit my groceries in my knapsack with just enough room for a carton of cigarettes, and while I am eager to get back to avoiding people by returning home to keep company with Eve and Electra, I get a second thought.
I leave the grocery and turn, not the way I came.
I slip my cigarette butt into the receptacle before the glass doors open.
There’s something different about the pet shop. Changes have been made, little ones, touches. It seems a bit darker. A bit more crowded.
Then I notice a new banner hanging from the rafters. There’s a new standing display, too. ‘Free Neuterings.’
The Frenchman launches himself from an opening with saloon doors. He makes a grandiose gesture, as if releasing a dove into the air. Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour! Il est là! Ah, il est si bon de vous revoir, monsieur.
Oh. Yes, and you as well.
He practically reaches into my pocket to shake hands. Vous êtes de retour si tôt. Vous devez vraiment aimer ici, hein…?
I wouldn’t say I love it here, but I’m very happy with the puppy and the parrot.
L’oiseau? C’est bon?
Fantastic. Her name is Electra now.
Incroyable. The Frenchman drops his hands and poses like the Virgin Mary. Mais nous ne visons à satisfaire.
The girl enters from a side aisle. Buenos días señor.
The Frenchman flicks the air. Zou! Pas maintenant.
She shrinks away. My eyes follow.
The Frenchman puts his arm in mine, turns me, walks me, takes a secretive tone. His cheek is close to mine, as if his whispers issue from his ear. En tant que client particulier, vous devriez savoir que mes services peuvent être très vaste.
‘Extensive services.’ I grow nervous.
The Frenchman reaches his free hand in front of us and pans it patiently, dreamily, as one would if unveiling the horizon. Il ya des animaux de tous les coins du monde, belles, exotiques, et je peux vous les fournir si vous voulez. Tout animal à tous.
Looking down, I notice the limp, vague spirit of a goose step in his gait. He is talking business and it possesses his body, crown to toe.
I look up and see the girl down a different aisle. She is lingering, eavesdropping, doing a poor job of seeming busy. The Frenchman does not notice her. She twists some cans to make the labels face out.
I ask, Any animal at all?
He grins like a toad. Mais bien sûr.
I let myself fall into his trap. I ask, Even ones, shall we say, supremely challenging to obtain?
His head almost slides off his neck. Monsieur, le plus difficile la tâche, plus je suis ici pour vous servir.
The more I speak, the more I understand him. I grasp where this is going.
I slide my hand inside his vest, tuck a wad of bills into his pocket, and pat him on the chest.
I say, Surprise me. Impress me.
He lets go, faces me like a soldier at attention. Ce sera mon devoir.
I glance at the girl. She walks away, dragging her fingertips along the shelf, fighting the need to look me in the eyes, I am certain of it.
I say, Thank you. I’m sure that it will.