Rolly sat in a high-ceilinged room on the yellowed bedcover at the foot of a sagged mattress, waiting for them to take him to meet his wife. No lights were on. It was just bright enough to show the glass bottles lined up on the bureau and, behind them, engraved in the beveled mirror, Hotel Liberatii. The curtains were nearly phosphorescent with the evening glow. He tilted her letters toward the curtains and sat in the growing dimness, rereading them one more time.
There were seventeen sent over the past five months, and the pages stacked together were a half-inch thick. He knew everything in them. He’d read each one three or four times before writing back. Over that winter and spring he’d written more words than he could have rounded up from all the writing he’d done in all the years before. He’d kept a pad beside his bed and written in it each night, kept another in the glove compartment of his truck, kept one on the floor next to his toilet, and put down some of his truest thoughts there. After a few weeks, he’d tear the pages off their spines and mail them to her. The letters he got back were just as long. He knew them the way he knew the tunes of his favorite songs. But now, with her somewhere in this same city and an hour till he saw her face to face, it was good to hold the thickness of her letters and read them once again. He liked the way she made her little f’s, the tip of each end curved to a curl. He spent some time searching them out.
Somehow, when he heard the hallway footsteps he knew they were going to stop outside his door.
The way the man said Rolly’s name did more strange things to the American language than Rolly would have thought possible in four syllables. He looked at the strip of hall light beneath the door and the two dark spots where the man’s shoes blocked it off. A knock came.
“Yeah,” Rolly said, and then, “Boona.” As soon as he’d said the word for “hello,” he knew he’d put the wrong sound to it, and he tried again, “Booner,” as he dug at the phrase book in his back pocket. He’d dog-eared the page he wanted and underlined the phrases he thought he’d need most and he found the words for “What is your name?” by the time he got to the door. “Koom va noomitisi?” he said through the wood.
“Say again?” the voice said, and then, “Romance Romania, Mr. Plowish, yeah? It’s cool. I speak English, okay? It’s cool I come in?”
The man who walked into the room was almost Rolly’s height, but they were two kinds of skinny. Whereas Rolly’s meat seemed shrink-wrapped around his bones, the shown parts on the guy from Romance Romania were made mostly of skin. He was younger than Rolly, too. Rolly sized him up for half a hair over twenty, despite, or maybe because of, the blond fuzz atop his lip. The way he dressed fit about as well as the mustache: a lemon yellow, short sleeve, knit polo, complete with a light blue polo-player stitched on the breast, tucked into navy blue pleated slacks with a hanger crease across the knees. He wore loafers and carried a briefcase and the hair on his head was buzzed so short it was hard to figure how the man could smell so strongly of gel.
“Hey,” the man said, “what’s up?”
“How’s it doin’ ya.”
“Perfect.” He said the first half pear, like the fruit. “You made it. The hotel cool? A cool hotel? Room’s cool?” While he talked, he used Rolly’s hand to try on four or five different kinds of grips that ended with a smack of knuckles in what Rolly figured was the finale of the handshake. “Your trip?” the man said. “You get the email? Everything jiggy?”
“Perfect,” he said. “We take maximum care of you, yeah?”
“Sure,” Rolly said. “You Gheorghe?”
“On your life. Personal adviser for you in Oradea. You ready to meet your wife?”
Rolly nodded. The motion made his face feel loose. He’d said the word to himself plenty—there was one night he’d caught himself standing in the kitchen with an empty plate in his hands, trying it out over and over, “wife,” to the accompaniment of the microwave’s whir and the smell of cooking fish sticks—but it was no preparation for hearing it aimed at him by someone else. “Well,” he said, “I reckon not yet. I mean I reckon she’s not yet.”
“You’re freaky,” Gheorghe said.
Rolly stared at him.
“Don’t be freaky.” Gheorghe gave him a quick shoulder tap with an open hand. “There’s no problem. Nothing to worry. We’ve done this before, yeah? It’s cool. She’s your wife. Yours. Okay? We’re professionally organized. This website, yeah? Romanian Romantics, yeah? There’s wicked perfect people there. You and me?” He flicked his pointer fingers back and forth between him and Rolly. “We’re so straight up.”
“Uh-huh,” Rolly said. “You’re Gheorghe Todurescu?”
Over the five months since he’d started paying the monthly membership dues, Rolly had kept up an email correspondence with the company’s Transylvania Director. Besides the letters he got from the woman he chose, the director’s emails had been the main measure of the rightness of his decision. Gheorghe Todurescu had walked him through it step by step, letting him know they’d received his hundred-dollar contact payment, assuring him it would be okay that he didn’t have easy access to email, making sure he got her postal address, telling him the company had checked with her to make sure she got his, not to mention, once Rolly decided he was ready to buckle up and put it in drive, all the help the man had been, mailing him a four-page instructional guide that told exactly where to go, and what to say, and how to say it, so that Rolly had practically been hand-led from Budapest to Oradea, into the taxi from the train station to the hotel, and up to the room that had been chosen for him. The guy had even written directions to the best spots for dinner, breakfast, a haircut. They’d been so thorough Rolly hadn’t needed an entire travel guide—just packed a few useful-seeming pages he’d Xeroxed from one he’d found at the Barnes and Noble outside Austin. Throw in the pep talks Gheorghe Todurescu had given him along the way, and he’d been downright eager to meet the man.
“Put that here,” the Transylvania Director said.
Rolly looked at his upturned palm. Before he could decide whether to have a go at a hand slap or get tangled in the shake ordeal again, Gheorghe made a fist and gave him a playful shoulder punch. “C’mon,” he said. “Take this freak off.”
“You talk different than you write,” Rolly said.
The man winked. He made a clicking sound with his mouth when he did it. Rolly never thought he’d actually see someone make the clicking sound and do the wink.
“You dig in this accent?” Gheorghe said. “On a woman, it’s perfect. You gonna see, jiggy? She’s perfect. She’s flying. Smart. Beautiful. Romanian. You two are going to be perfect. She’s going to love that hat.” He gestured to Rolly’s new dun-colored Stetson where it sat like a sleeping house dog on the foot of the bed.
“Okay,” Rolly said, and picked up the hat. “I guess she’s waiting.”
Gheorghe took a step back. A flood of seriousness swept over him so completely he seemed to age years. “You know it,” he said. “But you cool with it? I have a very enormous responsibility, okay? This woman who you have plucked from the orchard of our website, who has plucked you back, she is a down on earth woman. She is ready to spend the rest of her life with you. It’s a big thing she is committed to this love you are about to see. Partners in joy and sorrow, happy and sad. Mr. Plowish. This is the line in the sand. You have brought with you the transaction. It is my job to collect the transaction. But it is also my job to protect her heart. This is a good, real, jiggy woman, Mr. Plowish. You and me, we have known each other over these many months, yeah? You are my dog. But, she is my dog, too. Am I coming in loud and clear?”
Up till then, Rolly had only worried about whether this was the same Gheorghe he had emailed with for nearly half a year, but now he started to doubt whether the entire company was what he’d thought it was. He was no fool. He’d checked up. He’d read the testimonials online, gone so far as to call long distance to New Jersey to talk with a man who’d got hitched in the same way Rolly aimed to. He’d talked it over with his friend Deano, the two of them sitting with a cooler of Negra Modelo on the banks of the Rio long enough to get sun-cooked front and back, trying to figure the angles of a scam. If something stank, it sure seemed downwind of them. His credit card never got billed for more than he’d signed up for. Everything they’d said would happen, both at home and once he’d left, had. But now that he was here, and, as the man said, the sand line was tickling his toes, he was beginning to wonder just how bad he might have made his bed. The street outside had come alive. Through the open window wafted sounds of someone playing an instrument in a way so foreign it hid from him any picture of the thing at all. Strange gabble. A smell like fried flour, or warm sawdust, or something so unfamiliar his senses couldn’t even recognize it, let alone give it a name. Maybe, Rolly thought, it was just nerves. Maybe Gheorghe was right. Maybe he was just getting a little freaked out. Either way, here he was. If he didn’t have to sleep in the bed he’d made, he sure didn’t see how he could avoid at least getting in under the sheets.
“Well,” Rolly said, “let’s get about it.”
Gheorghe didn’t move. “Outside,” he said, “there’s mad loads of people, yeah?” Rolly waited for him to go on. “Here, it’s cool. You and me. It’s perfect.”
“Oh,” Rolly said.
Before he had a chance to say anything else, Gheorghe was moving past him to the bed. “It’s cool,” he said. “I’m down in it. Check this out.” He slapped his briefcase onto the bed, sprung it open. While he rifled through the papers inside, he talked. “Straight up,” he said. “Straight up. It’s a lot of cold ones. You want to hear, now, again, before you ante up, what I told you before are the finer points, yeah? That was over the internet, this is in the room, with the cold ones. I understand. Here it is, coming at you. No jive. One month ago, you say, okay, I’m ready. Before we say okay, come, we go to her. We talk to her. We make sure . . . here,” he handed Rolly a sheet of paper stapled to another one. “In Romanian. In English,” he said. “She’s signed both, yeah? She’s legally tied to go with you if you want, cool? It’s serious. It’s tough. But it’s the only way we can promise—promise—that you won’t come all the way here and then, what? She does not show up? But no, straight, Mr. Plowish, straight, she loves you. Some people, they hook in a bar, yeah? They think this is how to find love. But to have wrote letters like you wrote, like she wrote, well I don’t have to tell you, yeah? You’ve only seen her picture and read her letters and you’re all the way here in Romania? Here.” He handed Rolly an identification card with his picture on it, and a business card with the name of the company and the address of their office. “Now, catch this. Just like it says on the website. You give me, now, two thousand American dollars. I bring you to her at the restaurant. You see she is perfect. But, it’s cool, we say take it easy, don’t rush, think about it all night, and tomorrow, after you have spent all night dying to be with her, then we all meet in the morning and you give us the rest of the transaction, and we send you on the package honeymoon, and when it is done, you go home with Mrs. Plowish. And, if tonight, you go, you see her, she is perfect, but, I don’t know, you get freaky, you get really, really freaky, you think I don’t want this beautiful, smart, talented, incredible, loving, Romanian wife, I’m just not digging in this woman, if you think this then, I’m telling you, I’ve seen her, you’re whacked out, but you’ve only anted up half of the transaction and, catch it, we say, okay, Mr. Plowish is whacked out, let him keep the other half. Let me be straight with you, Mr. Plowish, if you’re going to get freaky, tell me now and I’ll go to the restaurant myself and try to give her enough of my own groove to make her love me, instead.”
The entire walk to the restaurant, Rolly stayed close enough to the website man that he could reach out and grab him if he had to. He strode with his gaze level and his hands free and blinders on his mind. All the discipline he had went to herding his attention to Gheorghe’s blur of movement, and when his thoughts broke loose they went inward to what exactly he was doing and with whom. Between the two, he hardly noticed the city. Gheorghe led him down an alleyway and back onto another street, this one streaked with cars, the air smelling of oil and leafy trees.
“Ready, yeah?” Gheorghe said.
He had stopped at the top of a short flight of concrete steps that dropped from the sidewalk to a wood slab of door. A faded awning jutted above. The windows, level with Rolly’s boots, were hidden by curtains and under the guard of bars.
“A dog of mine owns it,” Gheorghe said. “It’s not the super bling bling. But the food? Perfect. Real Romanian food for the real Romanian romance.”
A feeling rolled through Rolly like someone was strumming his guts. He figured she was probably fingering the same tune. It seemed wrong to draw it out any more than she’d already had to wait. “Let’s have at it,” he said, and went in first.
In one motion, he removed his hat and scanned the room for her. It was a dim, wood-walled, low-ceilinged place, with small lamps mounted on the walls like hunting trophies and nothing on the tables but tiny, clear vases. Some of them held tiny plastic flowers. It was crowded enough to steep the air in the smell of the food and the sounds of eating it—couples, a large group, lone men at their own small squares of linen, but no unaccompanied females that he could see at all.
“Hang out, okay?” Gheorghe said, and wove off through the tables.
Rolly tried to figure which table he was heading for. None of them looked promising. He worked his hat brim in his hands. Glancing down, he saw one jeans-leg had gotten hitched up on his boot and he jerked a little kick to shake it loose. When he looked up again, Gheorghe was bent down, talking to a lone man at a small table. He was wearing a suit that looked on the tight side and he was made of enough bulk to hide completely the chair on which he sat. Gheorghe straightened up and waved at Rolly to come near. The entire roomful seemed to take note, eyes following his progress, but he got the strange feeling he wasn’t so much a rare sight as a regular event scheduled for Wednesday nights. By the time he’d got to the table, they were all back to chewing.
“This is Nicu,” Gheorghe said.
The big man reached to a basket of bread on the table, took a slice, and stood up. “Buna Ziua,” he said. He lifted his eyes to say it, but as soon as he was done, he dropped them to the bread slice held flat in his palm and kept them there.
“Booner,” Rolly said.
“He says she’s powdering in the can,” Gheorghe said. “She’ll be back in one jif.” He said something to Nicu then, in Romanian. The big man had been peeling the crust off the top of his bread slice, but he stopped, took a step away from the table, and, spreading his cheeks with a smile, offered Rolly the chair. “Pofta Buna,” he said.
Rolly figured “Thank you” was his best bet, but, before he could get out even half of Multumesc, the man was heading for the bar, his head down again, re-engaged with the crust-tearing business in his palm.
“Take your load off,” Gheorghe said and, when Rolly sat, “I’ll have Dorin bring a bottle of wine. You want something more stiff?”
“You have whiskey?”
“Right on. Listen, be chilling. It’s maximum cool. Don’t get freaky, okay?”
“I’m not freaky,” Rolly said.
“Down,” Gheorghe said. “I’m down. Listen, dog, I’m going to go hang with Nicu at the bar. Get a little imbibe myself, okay? Leave you two alone, yeah? Need anything, send the waitress over, I’ve got it covered. Okay? Cool?”
But he didn’t go to the bar. Instead, Rolly watched him disappear down a hallway in the back. It wasn’t until Gheorghe was gone that Rolly noticed the black strap on the chair opposite him. That the strap had hung on her just minutes before seemed, for a moment, more personal a fact than he was entitled to, as if it were the strap of an undergarment she’d left behind instead of a purse. He pulled his gaze from it. The bread basket had three slices left. They were pre-buttered. The vase wasn’t even filled with water; the plastic flower stems looked dry as needlegrass. Reaching behind him, he hung his hat on the chair shoulder. He ran his fingers through his thinning hair, then unfolded his napkin and wiped his hands on it, and folded it again and put it back where it had been. Deano’s new girlfriend had come over before Rolly’d left and helped him pick out an outfit: his darkest pair of jeans and a rust-colored, western shirt a long-ago girlfriend of his own had bought for him. The pockets and chest pattern were enhanced by redder stitching and gleaming black snaps. He’d changed into it at the airport in Budapest, in case they surprised him and brought her to meet him at the train station, and it had traveled in two countries now, and looked it. He always felt more comfortable with his sleeves rolled up; it took an effort to resist the urge. Deano’s girlfriend had insisted the shirt’s best point was the snap-line on the cuffs. “Besides, you show those oversized wrists of yours, you’ll give her a heart attack,” Deano’s girlfriend had said, and, theorizing on the girth of men’s wrists, went on to make him uncomfortable.
He was trying to smell if his shirt was sour without lifting his arms, when she showed. She came out of the same hallway down which Gheorghe had disappeared, and, even if Gheorghe hadn’t been with her, Rolly would have known she was the one. She was looking anywhere but at him. Gheorghe said something to her, then peeled off for the bar. She came on. She was dressed the way Romanian women just seemed to dress: short enough to show what was legal and tight enough to give a good guess at what wasn’t. Except for shorter hair, she looked more like her picture than Rolly figured he did his. He got to his feet. With legs as long as his, that meant a good distance of chair shove and his hat toppled off in the process. He let it lie. He didn’t know whether to shake hands or what, so he just stored his hands in his back pockets. Something about that made her smile. Watching it, he managed to get out “Hi.”
“Hello,” she said.
“Well, I’m Rolly,” he said. “Plowish.”
“Jenica,” she said.
He grinned at that. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s prettier that way. I’ve been saying it with the J. Jenica Micle.”
He couldn’t tell if what passed over her face was a softening or a hardening, or if it was just a way about her as unknown as everything else.
“Jenica Plowish,” she said.
The stiffness of her smile thumbed unease against some rear part of his mind, until he thought about how his own face must look. The things that he could feel going on there he doubted he’d recognize.
“Here,” he said, and crossed behind her to pull out her chair, careful not to touch her bare arm. When he pushed her in, she settled back before he could get his fingers fully out of the way. The sudden, warm press of her shoulder skin stayed on his knuckles all the way until he’d sat again.
“I enjoyed your letters,” Rolly said.
“Thank you,” she said. “Yours were very long.”
“Sorry,” he said.
He worked at unfolding his napkin. When he got it in his lap, he cleared his mind enough to say thank you.
The waitress brought them menus, but not his scotch. “Whiskey?” he said to the woman as she was leaving the table again. “Scotch? Drink?” She looked at him as if they were sitting in church and he was asking her for a lap dance. “It’s okay,” he said. “Booner. It’s okay.”
When she was gone, he looked back at Jenica, but she was mostly hidden behind her menu. Glancing over at the bar, he got a good view of Gheorghe’s back next to Nicu’s back. “So,” he said, holding his look on the unreadables spread across the menu in front of him, “how’s the music teaching?”
“Good,” she said, and he felt something brush against his shin. He shook his leg a little, thinking his jean had got stuck on his boot again. The fabric continued to crawl toward the top of his boot. He drew his leg back. Her eyes had shown themselves over the top of her menu, and they got a hold on his in a way that left no wiggle room.
“I don’t have a clue what’s good to eat,” he said.
“I would be pleased to order for you,” she said. “I am Romanian woman, Rolly.” She put some serious tongue roll in her r’s. “I only wish, instead of ordering for my husband, I could cook for him.”
That night, walking back to his hotel, alone, Rolly stopped halfway through the Piata Libertatii, and stood staring across the river at the huge dome that towered over that side of the city. It was unlit, and black, but for what glint it could glean from the stars. He wondered what it was, or had been. It looked, for all the hopefulness of its majestic size, like a ruin.
She’d written out directions for him to follow, put them on a paper bar coaster with a heart, and her name, and the assurance that, if it weren’t for the rules, she’d prefer to accompany him home herself. He could feel the coaster stiff in his back jeans pocket. He guessed he liked her okay. They had talked for two hours, but, once the nervousness had worn off, he kept waiting for something else to fill him up in its place, some wondrous recognition that they would share between them, savoring it like bites of an incredible meal. He could still feel, in his gut, the heaviness of the dry pork chops she’d ordered for him, his mouth gummed up with the grease from soggy fries, his lips still wrinkled from the salty, cold cabbage. Well, what did he expect, steak specials and Saturday night at the Sizzler? Arrogant, he thought. He’d been arrogant all night. He was lucky she even liked him. She hardly knew him, and she already liked him enough to want to marry him. A dance club thudded its music across the river. He could feel the beat in the air against his jaw. He ran down a list of positives as if he were writing up a window sticker for a used car: she was nice; she was sexy; she seemed to like him well enough; she would treat him good; she played the clarinet. You bet, he thought, and tried to picture just how it would be on that first Saturday night he was back home, the first time he’d bring his Romanian wife to the bars, the whole town seeing in him the kind of man that could get a woman like that. Romania, he thought. A Romanian woman. That right there seemed enough to call it good.
“I’m lucky,” he said out loud.
An old man walking by gave him a look as if he were speaking gibberish.
In the morning it was bright and cool, tinged with the scent of heat coming on, and it reminded Rolly of nothing so much as Texas in early spring. He walked southward on the bridge over the Critsul Repede River, a full head taller than the rest of the morning crowd, his Stetson sun-blasted to near-white, his stride kicked to a swing by his heeled boots, one hand gripping the floral-print suitcase and the other swinging a brand new Polaroid camera by the strap. He found 62 Strada Cuza Voda quick enough, but walked the block twice, Gheorghe’s card glaring white in his hand, looking for a way he could have made a mistake. The only doorway between 56 and 64 was a dark cut in the side of a windowless building where one of the thin double doors opened into what looked like a cross between a dirty saloon and a dirty diner. The sign above read Snak Bar Internet Café and, nailed into the front, was a shelf of empty bottles advertising beverages to be bought. Kids’ voices mixed with the cacophony of video games.
Inside, the tables were empty, the chairs scattered. But along the wall a cluster of kids ranging in age from should-have-been-in-school to should-have-been-at-work crowded a few sorry looking computers. Behind a desk in the back, flanked by two ancient turquoise refrigerators, one of the work-age ones sat ignoring him as thoroughly as the others. When he got to him, Rolly smiled, held up a finger to beg for patience, and fished out his phrase book. Slowly, taking long breaks between each word, he pieced together the sentence “Can you help me find Romance Romania?” The desk kid jabbed a thumb toward the back corner where a bumper sticker—www.RomanceRomania.com—was slapped on a half-open door.
The Romance Romania office was as much wide hallway as narrow room. The floor—large red and white linoleum tiles, peeled up at the corners—sloped centerward, as if aiming for a drain. There were no windows, but, at the back, a door appeared to lead to a piece of outside. It was open, draped with a white lace linen. As he watched, a breeze stirred it and brought the scent of sun-baked dust into the room. One wall was crammed with a desk, a computer, a pin-up calendar, a bulletin board tacked with snapshots of women, an office chair, and Gheorghe. The other wall was wholly bare but for an empty chair backed against it.
“Mr. Plowish,” Gheorghe said. “Good morning.”
“Booner Demenatsa,” Rolly tried. He’d been memorizing phrases since dawn, imagining Jenica’s appreciation for the relationship effort he was already putting in.
“You’re learning Romanian,” Gheorghe said in a tone that should have been accompanied by a smile, but wasn’t. The Transylvania Director looked like a man intent on looking like a man intent. When he stood up to come around the desk, Rolly saw he was wearing the exact same outfit he’d worn the night before.
“Is she here?” Rolly asked.
“It’s cool,” Gheorghe said.
“It’s cool, okay.”
“Okay,” Rolly said. “She call?”
“Mr. Plowish, sit down, yeah?” he motioned to the chair against the wall.
“Tell me she called or something.”
“Let me sport you a drink? Beer, soda, coffee?”
“Please,” Gheorghe said. He motioned again for Rolly to sit, and when Rolly did he felt as if he had been physically put in the chair by the man. “There’s been a bit of a bitch,” Gheorghe said.
The jump Rolly’s mind made from troubled to mad gave him notice that it had been thinking something along those lines for longer than he’d known. “Mr. Todurescu,” he said, “I’m not liking what I’m thinking.”
“No, no, no, Mr. Plowish—”
“I don’t guess you’d like it, either.”
“Don’t crank it up.”
Rolly’s free hand found the camera where it dangled off his shoulder and gripped it as though it were attached to something more solid than himself. His mind was working fast, the video game noise coming through the door like a soundtrack to its frenzy. “She’s not gonna show up, is she?” he said.
Gheorghe called something in Romanian back through the doorway, then, to Rolly, said, “We’re gonna make it cool.”
“Listen.” Rolly stood. “I don’t care if she didn’t come, you know, I mean . . . I don’t care.” He rolled his tongue inside his mouth as if trying to clear it of a grimy feeling. “I don’t care,” he said again, “but you all made an agreement, you know, and it’s a lot of money, the flight, and the fees and the, you know, two thousand . . . shit,” he said.
The Transylvania Director had leaned back on the edge of his desk and was nodding while Rolly spoke. “We’ll make it jiggy,” he said.
“The deal was you guaranteed, before I was supposed to get the ticket, you guaranteed—”
“I got you,” Gheorghe said.
“I mean, I don’t care if she didn’t like . . . if dinner didn’t . . . I mean, I just think you guaranteed even if she didn’t like me, and now she’s not here, and it’s just an awful lot of money, Mr. Todurescu. It’s—”
“She’s here,” Gheorghe said. The door opened the rest of the way and the desk kid came in carrying two bottles of something. He gave them to Gheorghe, and they passed quick foreign talk between them before Gheorghe came back to Rolly. The teenager stood in the doorway, watching as if he’d paid for popcorn and a seat.
Gheorghe held out both bottles. “You dig in orange, or lime?”
“That’s okay,” Rolly said. The man handed him a bottle anyway.
“Fruity Fresh,” Gheorghe said.
Rolly thought it was just part of the man’s skewed slang until he turned the bottle over and saw the brand name scrawled across the label. It was lime.
“Authentic Romanian,” Gheorghe said. “Made fifty kilometers from here.”
Rolly kept his capped. “I’m listening,” he said.
“Straight up,” Gheorghe said. “Dog to dog, yeah? This women, this bitch, she rings last night, you know? She says, she can’t do it. She’s not hip to it. Some bitch, yeah? I mean this isn’t a maximum typical Romanian woman. I can assure you, Mr. Plowish, this kind of bitch . . . ”
“She’s here?” Rolly said.
“This is a professionally organized company,” he said. “We made the agreement, yeah? We’re legit.” He twisted the cap off his soda bottle. “She didn’t want to come, this bitch, but we got her.”
“Can I see her?”
Gheorghe took a swig of his Fruity Fresh. “You bet.”
“Maybe I ought to talk to her.”
Gheorghe shrugged, raised his eyebrows as if that were a thought he’d have to think twice about, but, leading Rolly to the doorway in the back, he pushed aside the white curtain. A back lot cut in half by shade, the other half so bright after the dimness inside that, for a second, the flattened dirt and the piles of junk, the corrugated tin walls, the asphalt-shingled shed, the outhouse, all looked like different varieties of white. Then Rolly saw them. The big man from the night before, Nicu, sat on a rusted-out oil drum. He wore a brown exercise suit, and his back was to Rolly, and across from him were three small bird cages flecked white with dried chicken scat. Atop of them sat the woman Rolly had thought to make his wife.
“Jenica?” he said.
She looked at him, drew on her cigarette, looked away again. The big man just gave him the fat folds of the back of his neck.
“Hey,” Rolly said to the woman, dipping his chin at the Polaroid slung at his side. “I got an instant camera for . . .”
She got rid of her cigarette in a motion so violent it shut him up. She muttered something in her native tongue that he understood, nonetheless, as the equivalent of “shit.”
“Okay.” He took a step off the door jam onto the dirt. “Okay,” he said, “I just—”
The big man said something to her, and before Rolly could take a second step, she was walking away, fast, toward the back of the lot. She reached the outhouse, tore open the door, got in, and shut herself inside.
Rolly looked at Gheorghe.
The Transylvania Director gave a slight shake of his head. “Bitch,” he said, and called something in Romanian to Nicu. The big man got up and, without looking their way, walked slowly to the outhouse. He grabbed the handle and gave the door a yank. The whole shack seemed to feel it, but the door stayed shut.
“You want I should tell him bust that latch?” Gheorghe said.
Rolly kept his stare on the outhouse. “She locked herself in?”
“It’s a small latch. Only a shit house.”
The soda bottle was making his fingers cold. He stooped down, put it on the dirt. For a second, he looked at the beaded bottle there, in the dirt where the shade didn’t hurt his eyes. His knees seemed unable to get him back up. He made them. “No.” He shook his head. “No, don’t.”
“We gave the guarantee,” Gheorghe said. “She signed.”
“No,” Rolly said.
“She’s yours. It’s my job, yeah? The agreement. The transaction. It’s all straight up. She’s . . . this bitch, this fucking bitch tries to put a screw in it, and don’t get blue for her. You came all the way, yeah? You paid the transaction. She signed, yeah? It makes me piss, you know? This thing, it hurts. Reputation. Business. The name of Romanian women—which are the jiggiest, most flying women in the world, Mr. Plowish—what does this do, a bitch like that, to the rep of Romanian women, yeah? Don’t let this fucking bitch—”
“Okay,” Rolly said. “She say anything to you?”
“A bitch like that, it doesn’t matter.” Gheorghe took a swig of his Fruity Fresh. Rolly could hear the pop slosh back in the bottle, the gulp in Gheorghe’s throat.
“She say why?” Rolly asked.
“We had to get the hotel clerk to open her fucking door.”
“I’d like to know why.”
“Okay,” Gheorghe said. “Because you’re asking, and because you’re my dog.” He motioned for Rolly to come back inside, and let the curtain fall shut.
They stood, facing each other, their backs to the close walls, and it seemed to Rolly that the man was scanning him in a cold way, taking in his details and storing them in some particular order inside his head.
“She said . . .” Gheorghe let out a breath and dropped his gaze to the place where the bottom of the curtain met the tile floor. “She said you’re not a nice guy. This bitch, I don’t know. She said you’re selfish, no manners, your mustache, you know? She doesn’t, how can I break this on you, the attraction, the heat, yeah? Your intelligence, yeah? She, this bitch, she tells me on the phone, you’re . . .” he took another swig of his drink.
“She thinks I’m ugly?” Rolly said.
“She thinks I’m dumb?”
“No, Mr. Plowish, this is uncool. It makes me . . . Okay. Don’t go to the dump, yeah? Really. It’s not, she’s not, you’re not dumb, ugly, anything so really terrible. Okay? I don’t want you bum, Mr. Plowish, she really—this beautiful, brilliant, flying, top-of-the-notch, Romanian woman, bitch woman, but, really one of a type of flying body and brain, too, yeah? This woman is, you should buck up, because, this kind of woman she doesn’t think you’re maximum loser, maximum lame, okay? I mean she thinks only you’re not bad, you know? She’s, maybe, you’ve seen her, she’s maybe more. So, there’s maybe just not the right fit, yeah? Maybe it’s for the best? Because she’s there being at the top most flying level and you’re, you know, not so flying like her, so it’s not very cool once she’s in America, okay, with other American men who are maybe, you know, in more of a icy flying level? Like her. You digging, Mr. Plowish? You digging, okay?”
“You’re saying she’s out of my league.”
“Straight up,” Gheorghe said. “Leagues. There are different ones, yeah?” He smiled. “I’m in this league, too,” he said. “These guys,” he nodded toward the desk kids at the door, “they’re in this league. We all hang in the league, yeah? Let me tell you a secret. Most American men they come to find Romanian women because they’re looking to get out of their league, yeah? But, take it from me, if you say, okay, this is my league, I’m part of this league, then you are in the money. You are jiggy. It’s much more chilling. Take it from me.”
Rolly glanced back toward the opening to the internet café and saw the desk kid had been joined by one of the other older teenagers. They stood on either side of the doorway. Between them, Rolly could see the clump of boys had gathered halfway across the computer room.
“You mind?” Rolly said. They all looked at him as if he had not spoken. He turned back to Gheorghe. “Can you ask them to shut that door?” Gheorghe said something in Romanian. They moved into room and shut the door behind them.
The full load of what he’d lost was spreading through his gut like something foul he’d eaten. His hand holding the suitcase felt numb. The idea of the police was just another detail filling in the picture of how ignorant he was. He didn’t know where they were, or how he’d talk to them, or even what fell where on the line of legal. The embassy was on the other side of the country. Maybe if he could just get back home, to the police there . . . The concept of Texas, let alone his home-town sheriff, seemed so far removed from where he was and what he’d done as to have no bearing on it at all. Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to be out of that hallway office, away from the smell of Gheorghe’s hair gel, somewhere out on the street where nobody would recognize him or know even a part of the foolishness he’d done.
“I don’t guess,” he said to Gheorghe, “you’re gonna give me my two thousand back.” He had to look away from the pained face the Romanian made. The sick feeling had spread, a wash of badness crawling from his bowels to his throat. He tried to think of something to say, just a couple of words to end it on, but the American ways of saying goodbye seemed as hidden from his mind as the Romanian ones.
He was halfway to the door when he realized the two teenagers weren’t going to open it for him or move to let him do it for himself. He turned back to Gheorghe. In an even, tired voice, he said, simply, “What.”
Gheorghe stuck his free hand in his pocket. He seemed to look somewhere just to the left of Rolly’s eyes. “Don’t get—”
“The rest of the transaction,” he said.
Rolly stared at him.
“We are legit. Don’t give me that altitude. We did our part, yeah? We get you your woman to write to you. We get her signature. We get you two to meet. If you walk out now, it’s your choice.”
“She’s locked in an outhouse,” Rolly said.
“You say a word,” Gheorghe slapped the air in front of him. “We get her out. Nicu!” he called. The big man’s hand pushed aside the curtain too quickly for him to have been anywhere but just outside. Falling shut behind him, the white fabric caught on part of his back. He didn’t seem to notice, just took a green swig from the bottle in his hand. Rolly’s eyes darted to the strip of open doorway; the lime drink he’d left on the ground was gone.
“This morning,” Gheorghe said, “when we unlocked her hotel room, she threw a shoe. It came this close to my eye, yeah? She got a scissor from her bag. We had to corner her. Not cool, Mr. Plowish. Like a stiletto, yeah? Like this.” He made a quick jab at the air in front of him. “You dig in what I’m saying? Last night, you anted up half the transaction for us having showed her. We were straight up, dog to dog. This morning, if you dug in her, you were to come here, and we were to deliver her, yeah? Here you are, Mr. Plowish.” He opened his hands, palms upward. “Here she is.”
“Buddy,” Rolly said. “I’m not an easy man to rile.” He put the suitcase down beside him, freed his hands. “The deal was I’d pay you when I walked out of here with my wife.”
“Okay,” Gheorghe said. “No problem. This kind of fucked up, in the business of love, Mr. Plowish, it goes down sometimes, yeah? We’re more used to it than you might think. The girls, sometimes they put up a fight, but we get it over fast so they don’t get nothing broken, yeah? Nicu is good with the belly. He stays away from the nose, the cheeks, the lips. Don’t get freaky, Mr. Plowish. We’ll make it cool.” He said something in Romanian then. The big man tipped back his head to finish the Fruity Fresh in one long drink. Rolly watched the liquid ripple under the fat of his throat. “We’ll get your wife to walk out with you,” Gheorghe said. “We’ll get you a taxi. Once you’re in the taxi, it’s your deal.”
Finished drinking, the fat man reached behind him and swatted at the curtain in an effort to get it unstuck from his back.
“Okay,” Rolly said and then, “No, no. I mean okay. Don’t.”
Gheorghe shrugged and said something to Nicu. The big man, already shed of the curtain and facing the dirt lot outside, stopped. Without any other sign that he had heard, Nicu sat down on the doorjamb. The curtain tried to fall back between him and the room, but, again, hung up on the man’s bulk. In the sliver of open space not covered by the curtain or Nicu’s back, Rolly could see part of the outhouse. A black chunk had been cut out of the outhouse door, not shaped like a moon or a sun but just a black cut-out chunk, and he had the distinct impression that she was looking at him. While he stared, the door eased open just enough for her hand to reach out, flick a cigarette butt onto the dirt, and disappear again.
So, Rolly thought, that’s how it is.