Karl Luntta is the author of the novel "Know it By Heart" (Northwestern University Press/Curbstone, 2003) and short story collection "Swimming" (SUNY Press, 2015), and has published fiction in journals including International Quarterly, North Atlantic Review, Talking River Review, Baltimore Review, Northeast Corridor, and Toronto Review.
The photograph lay on the bed in front of Charles, along with the briefcase, wallet, toiletries, and assorted clothing in a new, aluminum alloy suitcase, the belongings of one Malcolm R. Quinn, bulk newsprint salesman from Racine, visiting a convention in Belgrade. And recently deceased. Sixteen hours deceased, give or take. The U.S. Embassy had gotten the call from the Belgrade city polizia, who in turn got the call from the Hotel Belgrade Mondo. A resident, the hotel staff had explained, apparently an American businessman, was dead in room two-twenty-two. Stone dead. They hadn't bothered to call the emergency medical teams for it. Malcolm Quinn had been found face down on the floor, fully clothed, his back not rising when it should have, his face immobile, mouth constricted in an ambiguous pleasure-pain rictus. Lividity fully on display, the pooling of his now stagnant blood pulled by gravity toward the floor, turning his forehead and chin and neck a mottled mauve. Cool to the touch. The polizia had determined on the spot there was no sign of foul play. They determined this much to their own relief, for this was Belgrade, a city building itself up once more to be a world-class tourism and convention center steeped in baroque European history, free from civil war and the random murders of American businessmen. It was probably a heart attack, or stroke. Something. No drugs were in evidence, no alcohol save for a sip of gin and tonic, the miniature hotel bottle still half full next to the plastic cup. The ice had long melted. Hardly enough for an investigation, and, after an initial examination of the body, a Belgrade medical examiner was disinclined to worry over an autopsy. From the reports, Charles also guessed heart attack. He'd seen the same situation once before, in Nairobi -- which had involved, he was sure, a prostitute who had fled the heart attack victim's room as he likely lay gasping or clutching at his numbed arms and failing heart. The victim's pants were around his ankles, his flaccidity marking his deflated life. A look of horrid surprise was frozen on his face, as if he'd suddenly realized that his final humiliation in a life full of indignities would be to die in a hotel room with his pants around his ankles. And this one, the Belgrade death. Quinn, at fifty-eight years old, would have been dealt a bad heart. Charles put the scene together as he surveyed the room, now at least three hours since the body had been removed. Charles had him alone, sitting in his stained hotel easy chair, tie loosened, thinking about dinner, raising a toast to his successful day at the newsprint booth, blue blazer thrown across the bed. The drink and the TV remote on the stand next to him. He'd sat down, taken his first sip from the drink, felt the nascent blood-rush in his ears, had the atavistic impulse to jump up and run from it. To the door, maybe? Or to the bathroom, to the emergency baby aspirin on the counter? Is there 911 in Belgrade? Too late, he wouldn't run from it, it was inside him. It was him. At the moment of his death, Quinn was pain writ large, his central organ swelling and taut, his panic exacerbated by the perfect knowledge that this, this very moment, was it. Perhaps he'd seen the abyss. But the fear had taken over, his thoughts muddled by it, clouded, as he'd plunged to the floor, the beige hotel carpet rushing up to meet him. Perhaps he'd screamed and clutched at something, or swatted the air. Perhaps he'd never seen the light go out. Charles had caught the call and that was that. It was a matter of routine at this point. Go to the hotel to check the room, go over the work of the polizia and medics, gather the unfortunate Quinn's belongings, and have them shipped home. He didn't doubt that some items of value had already been stolen. Small things would be gone, incidentals, nothing that could be noticed and later cause some sort of international outcry. No to the watch and wedding ring, yes to the cufflinks. No to the Milwaukee Brewers windbreaker, yes to the leftover bottle of cologne. No to the credit cards, cell phone, laptop, and photos. Yes to some, but not all, of the cash he'd had in his pocket. They'd ripped him off, but prudently. The suitcase lay on the unmade bed, some clothing, flannel pajamas, a bathrobe, and a white T-shirt, clean and unused on Quinn's day of manning the booth. Charles pushed the items around on the bed. Then, the photo. There were three, actually, all slightly larger than wallet size. The first was Quinn standing behind a woman about his age, thickish at the hips, black hair in a page-boy cut. She was smiling, Quinn's hand on her shoulder, with two older teenagers, a boy and a girl, to her left. Against a backdrop of palm trees and a tropical beach. A studio shot, their dreams Photoshopped in. They'd probably had choices for the background. Niagara Falls, maybe, or the Taj Mahal. Perhaps the Eiffel Tower. Was it Quinn or his wife who'd dreamed of the tropics? The second photo was the two kids. He flipped it over to find nothing. He guessed at their names. Robert and Olivia, Bobby and Libby. Or Jordan and Madison, something like that, standing in front of a Christmas tree, probably a year or so ago, wearing ugly Christmas sweaters, red with gold borders and adorned with reindeer and moose and snowflakes and a fat Santa. Both kids were pointing to each other's sweater, cracking up, a family joke. The third was … was what. A triptych of snaps, Malcolm Quinn and a young woman, obviously sitting in a photo booth somewhere. That photo booths were still around was a surprise to Charles, and this was no thirty-year old snapshot taken back at the county fair. It was a contemporary Quinn, taken within the last year or two. He was already slightly overweight and jowly, hairline receding, wearing a red tie and that blue blazer, likely the same blazer lying here on his deathbed in Belgrade. The girl was young, mid-twenties Charles thought, her shoulder-length hair dyed light magenta and tucked behind her ears, with bright plum lipstick, thick black eyeliner above and below her hazel eyes. A tattoo which looked to be the green and red tail of a dragon peeked out from the shoulder of her black tank top, most of it below the camera's eye. She was punkish. She was stunning. In the first, the top one, they both made fish faces at the camera, goofing around, as if in fact they were teenagers at the county fair. In the middle photo she sat on his lap, her arms around his neck, the side of her head pressed against his, her tongue slightly protruding, pushing through the purple haze of her lips, and glistening. Quinn smiled wryly at the camera. The bottom photo had her head turned as she kissed his cheek, her eyes closed, hand cupping his chin, brushing it lightly with her fingers. Quinn glanced at the camera, evidently not surprised, and relaxed somehow. Content. "Well," Charles said aloud, weighing it, hoping against the evidence that this was an older child, or a daughter from a first marriage. But this was no daughter's kiss. Grown daughters do not sit on their fathers' laps and stroke their chins. Yet, this was no prostitute or bar pick-up either. This was something more. This was intimate. He turned it over to look for names, a date. It was blank. He slid the photo into his suit pocket, on instinct, fully aware but not fully understanding why or where he was going with it. He packed up the suitcase and clothing and other items in a couple of large plastic storage bags, wrote "Malcolm Quinn" and the date on the labels. He glanced around the room. It was nothing now, just a hotel room in which an American salesman had poured his last gin and tonic. He left with the bags. ……………………………
Back at the embassy, he laid the photo on his desk, took it in. The hand, brushing the cheek and chin. Her slip of the tongue, warm and wet, maybe with a hint of something. Mint, or cherry cough drops. Was Quinn tender and gentle with her, imbuing their … their thing with the wonder and the joy he'd always known was still out there for him, and with the pure knowledge that he'd found it all over again? Or would he be sweaty and quick, a heavy breather, slathering her like a puppy. Eager to cash in before it all predictably, inexorably went bad for him. Didn't seem like it, but Charles couldn't say why. Just like he couldn't say what brought this twenty-something woman to the lap of Malcolm Quinn. Whatever it was, it was behind their eyes. The desk phone jangled, that distinct European jangle, incongruous every time he heard it. It was the same with polizia sirens or ambulances, the high-low, piercing call you always heard in the Bourne movies, like the siren was practicing a slow yodel. Why? Like the metric system, it was Europe being Europe. It was Catherine. Being Catherine. "Where are you," she said. "Obviously in my office," he said. "Sorry, the time got away from me." "We were having drinks, remember? Harry and Jackie and Melanie and me, all of us." "Sorry, I got a call. A stiff at the Mondo, heart attack most likely. I should have called." "That's why God invented cell phones," she said. "Texting is all the rage." "I'm sorry, really," looking at the photo on the desk. The girl was smiling, then snuggling with Quinn, kissing him, oblivious to any teenagers in ugly Christmas sweaters. He pulled out his cell phone, focused on the photo, and snapped a picture. "What are you doing?" Catherine said. "Just packing up," he said. "You're at Bistro Pastis?" "For a while." Then, "For a bit." "I'll be there in half an hour," he said. He picked up the photo. "Well hurry, it's getting late," she said. "I'm on it," he said. "Later." "You don't have to sigh." "Sorry. Long day," he said. He hung up, walked to the shredder. He pictured Catherine, sitting on the lap of some nameless man and, what, stroking his chin. No, she was not a chin stroker. She was more a chin puller. A look-at-me-I'm-talking-to-you chin puller. He poised the photo over the shredder. He should probably say something, a prayer or a eulogy, for the dead Quinn and his punk girl. Rest in peace? There was no peace here, no rest. The family would be notified, and they'd react as families do. They'd be overcome. But the punk girl would wait for the call or the postcard or the email or the text that would never come. She'd be puzzled, then worried. Her texts and calls wouldn't be answered. She'd make a complicated, discreet call to the hotel and would be told something cryptic that would confuse her more. She'd think Quinn was cheating on her, if that's even possible for a married man, or had given up on the whole damn thing. He paused over the shredder. It gaped at him, its Cheshire cat teeth lined flat in a robotic smile. Daring him to commit to the irrevocable. It should be easy. He shuddered -- it wasn't his photo to destroy, it belonged to a dead man and to his family, his final possessions on Earth. Yet. Yet, Quinn was gone, the girl unknown, and the wife and sweater kids should never, ever know. So which was it, destroy a dead man's property or destroy a dead man's legacy? Both were unthinkable. High crimes and miss the dreamers. Charles took a breath and pushed the photo in. The high-pitched grinder did its work, and the photo evaporated into the never-was. He pulled out his phone and looked at the photo of the photo. Quinn placid, smiling behind her kiss. He texted Catherine that some issues related to the stiff had come up, and he wouldn't be able to make it to Bistro Pastis. Sorry. Again. He'd see her tomorrow. He sighed as he pushed 'send.' He walked over to Red Bar, a smallish, homey pub a block from the embassy. It was quiet, the low-energy hum of people drinking with a purpose hanging in the haze over the bar. He felt it on his skin. Three men sat at the bar, slumped over slightly, all with both hands surrounding their glasses, the standard drunk's slouch. The booths were empty save for one, where a young couple talked in low whispers over their drinks. He sat at the bar, ordered whiskey, rocks, then changed his mind and switched to a gin and tonic. A toast to Quinn and the last moment of his life. And to the family. The girl. That photo. Jesus. "You are an American," the man two stools over said. His hair, graying at the temples, poked out straight, like porcupine hair, and he wore three or four days of chin stubble. A smoldering, evil smelling Driba dangled between his fingers. He stared ahead, didn't turn, preferring evidently to conduct this conversation via the mirror behind the bar. The bartender looked from the man to Charles, as if thinking he would have to referee this. "It's your accent," the man said. "Though you speak it, you are no Serb." "Objectively," Charles said, sticking with Serbian, "I could be Canadian. Or a Brit, Australian. Something like that." "Nothing like that," the man said, now smiling slightly through the dinge of the mirror. "You carry yourself like an American." "And how's that?" Charles said. "Cool. American cool. Like Steve McQueen. Obama. Like you could have a badger hanging off your leg and it wouldn't faze you." "That kind of cool," Charles said. "That kind of cool. And your accent. It's nasally, twangy. Chicago, not Brisbane." "And you," Charles said to the mirror. "You're, what, Croat?" "Boston," the man said. "Twenty-seven years in a cab. In Boston." Charles squinted through the mirror. He could picture it, jumping into this guy's cab on Commonwealth, saying, "Hei La Moon, Chinatown," and hearing a Serbian curse from the front seat. "And now you're back home." "We all come home eventually," the man said. He glanced at the mirror. "And the Red Sox were killing me anyway. It was time." "The Red Sox have killed many a good man," Charles said. "You know, if I'd stayed here I would have died in the war, I know it for a fact," the man said. "The wars, I should say. Either way, a man should die at home." The cell phone sat on the bar top. "If he's lucky," Charles said. "If he's lucky, yes. And I am lucky." "What, you're dying?" Charles said. "No. No, not at all. The opposite. I am just beginning to live." "So why the talk about dying?" "I'm a middle-aged guy in a bar. What the hell. No wife, not anymore. No kids. Seems like something to talk about. So, you're CIA." The bartender jerked back, as if he'd caught a whiff of bad cabbage under the bar. "What? No," Charles said. "Do I look like a spook?" He sensed that "spook" didn't sound right in Serbian, so he took an aside, and to the bartender said, "spy." The bartender nodded languidly. "No," Charles said again. "Who knows?" the man said. "There's one, one or a dozen, in every embassy. And you are embassy, am I right? Don't worry, I couldn't give a shit." He glanced to the end of the bar, where the two other men sat quietly, glazed eyes fixed on their drinks. "Nobody cares, the war's over. Spooks are fine by me." Charles signaled for another drink, and nodded to the man. The barman set them up, and Charles raised his gin and tonic. "Cheers," the man said in English, through the mirror, and raised his whatever it was. He grinned and downed half of it in a gulp. "So. What do you do here?" Charles said, but of course he knew. "Taxi, what else." He turned to Charles, his face broad and flat, almost two-dimensional, something Charles hadn't discerned in the mirror. He smiled slightly and it turned lopsided, as if he were trying to work out a piece of meat stuck between his teeth. "So what's eating at you?" he said. Charles hesitated, the truth of it striking him, as if for the first time. "What do you mean?" he said. "What makes you think something's bothering me?" "Glanced at your phone, picked it up, maybe three times since you sat down," the man said. "So you're either expecting a call or thinking you should make a call. Or you want to check your twitted or whatever." "Twitter," Charles said. "And no, no calls. Look, if I'm the spook, I should be figuring you out." "So you've already made your calls. I hope you're not thinking I'm prying. I'm not gay, if that's what you think. Though that shouldn't bother you, your gays can even get married now. Equality for all." "'Our gays?" Charles said. "No offence," the man said. "I mean to say I'm not trying to be sinister. I may look it, actually, but hey, we're just two guys in a bar, right?" "We are at that," Charles said. "So let me just play a guessing game here." Talking through the mirror again. "Don't think I'm in the mood," Charles said. "No, it's a good game," the man said, and settled in. "Because there's no final answer, no checkmate or anything like that. Just guessing." "Whatever," Charles said. "So let's say an American dies in Belgrade, a businessman, yes?" Charles took a slow sip of his drink, buying a moment. Heat gathered at the back of his neck. "And let's say it's an accident, or a medical thing, something like that. Not murder." "Sure," Charles said. His sensed his breathing picking up. "And let's say one of the first calls is to the U.S. Embassy, because the man's an American of course. With me?" "I'm with you," Charles said. "Give me one of those Dribas?" "You'll be sorry," the man said, smiling, and he tapped out a cigarette, pushed it to Charles, all the while talking through the mirror. "Okay, so let's say someone like you gets the job, because you're an embassy guy, as we've already established. So that someone has to go to the scene to sort it out, gather the things, get the body sent home, all that." "Still with you," Charles said, remembering why he'd stopped smoking. He hacked, "But leave me out of this. I've been the body guy in the past, I know that job, I know what it's like." "Fine, then it's someone like you. Now, here's the thing. There's something at the scene, something that bothers this body man greatly. It hits him hard. He can't shake it off, you see? It's more than troublesome." Charles swirled his drink, thought about it for a moment. "Where's this going?" "I have no Earthly idea," the man said. "I'm running on instinct right now." "Can't be," Charles said. "This isn't instinct. You think you know something. " "Well, we all know something, don't we," the man said. "Some things. Some useless things, some helpful things. That's me, in a nutshell." "I can't believe you just said that," Charles said. "I live for a good cliché," the man said. "But let's not worry about that. Let's say this embassy man, the body guy, is very troubled by what he sees at the scene. A hotel room, or an office. No, not an office, the businessman was here on a trip, probably a convention or whatever. He wouldn't have an office." "Probably a hotel room," Charles said, sensing his voice going hoarse. "Sure," the man said. Smoke drifted from his nose and he crinkled his eyes. But they'd gone this far, and Charles pushed it. "Call it the Hotel Belgrade Mondo, for instance." "Good, I like it," the man said, showing nothing. "The Belgrade Mondo. So the American has died, the body's been taken away, and the embassy's body man is left in a troubled room. Ethical difficulties are afoot. It's a morality play. But the body guy is a decent man, a principled man. And he doesn't lie. Big lies, anyway. Little lies, everyone is guilty of them. So he's stuck with a dilemma." "Which is what?" Charles said. "Well," the man said. "That's the guessing part, isn't it. What is his dilemma?" Charles squinted at the mirror, trying to discern the half-smile, the steady eyes. Nothing. "You tell me. Maybe it's one of those things you know." "Wish I did," the man said. "An ethical dilemma is like fine art. No one agrees what it is, but everyone knows it when they see it." "You cannot keep bringing these clichés into conversations." "Yeah, can't help it. It's clearly pathological." Charles said, "Fine, I'll bite. Maybe the dilemma is simple. " "Maybe it is. Depends how you define 'simple.' " "Occam's razor, my friend. In theory, simple is the most obvious. A conundrum like this, it boils down to balance." "How so?" the man said. "What balance?" "The world. The world the dead man left behind. His world needs maintenance." "What difference does it make," the taxi man said, and he turned again to Charles. "The man is gone. He has no world. Religious beliefs in the afterlife aside, of course." "Everyone has a world, before they die, and after," Charles said. "The only difference is the world he leaves behind is a world without him. But after he's gone everyone in his life creates placeholders for him. He's a hologram. People see him in their dreams. They smell him, feel him, set the table for him. Forever. His family, his friends, his enemies." "Well, there you have it," the taxi driver said. "He's gone, but he's not gone. Not to his family. So is it worth protecting that world? Maintaining it?" "You tell me," Charles said, aware he was breathing deeply now, through his nose. "But first you're thinking, at what cost?" the driver said. "I don't know. A small lie. Maybe losing something of his, nothing big. Nothing that would be missed. " "Everything is missed, by someone." The punk girl, magenta hair, desire. Charles signaled for another round, then leaned across the stool. He whispered, aware if he spoke out loud he'd shout it. "What in God's name is going on here?" The taxi driver, following Charles in the mirror, tapped the ashes from his cigarette. "I actually don't know what's going on. Maybe you do. That's part of it, isn't it. See, alternatively, the body man could return everything to the family, leaving nothing behind. Because that's the honest thing to do. That would be an ethical choice, too. Am I right?" "It would, but I'll repeat," Charles said, and took a strong pull on his drink. "What is going on here?" "Well, nothing," the man said. "Am I being too enigmatic? You'd think I was one of those mystics or mind readers or something. The inscrutable East European." "Too enigmatic? You're completely enigmatic. How do you know these things?" "It's just a tale," the driver said. "About choice. Nothing more, nothing less. Someone has to make a choice, maybe it doesn't matter. As I said, there's no checkmate here. No one wins. No one ever wins." The heat at the back of Charles' neck shifted to a low burn. "How is this a game? The game's over. What do you know?" he said. "Not much, really. I know about love, I know about lonely men. I know about loyalty. Sometimes the outcome of all that is messy." "Messy? That's it, it's just messy? Jesus," Charles said. He couldn't muster anything else. The men at the bar glanced up, then down quickly, as if they'd heard a mosquito buzz by. The bartender's head stopped its tennis-match bounce between them and settled on Charles. "And the rest of it," Charles said. "How do you know about the room, the items?" "Look, I'm just a taxi driver, the quintessential spectator. We all are. The police, the medics, taxi men. Anyway, say something has indeed happened in that room, which ultimately has to do with your phone, let's say. That much seems evident right now." The phone jangled, the ultimate cliché. "Tessie," by the Dropkick Murphys. They both looked at it, and the taxi man smiled. "Red Sox," he said. "Still killing me." Charles checked the screen. A text, Catherine again. "Sorry," he said to the mirror, and read it. "Good night," was all it said, nothing more. He tossed the phone back on the bar. "You know, there's one last option," the taxi man said. "One more solution to this conundrum." "Which is what?" "That the body guy has no option. None at all. He does what he does, no questions, no forethought. No regrets. If that's possible." "No such thing as no regrets," Charles said. "You could say," the man said, "he erases morality from the situation. He simply does it. Like a horse shits when walking. No thought, it just happens." He squinted at Charles through the mirror. "Look, I'm intrigued by all this," Charles said. "But you know what? I don't want to know what you know. And I don't want to know what I know. I never want to know what I know. None of it." "Because it's over," the taxi man said and drained his whatever it was. "It's always going to be over." Charles picked up the phone and glanced at the text, checked the taxi man in the mirror, who'd just lit another Driba and inhaled deeply. He typed, "Good night," and sent it sighing into the dark.