Alchemist's Gift

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The Truth In a Lie

Liz sat at an outside table and sipped her coffee while she waited for Roland. It was a little past ten. Except for a few billowing clouds, the sky was clear and the air was crisp. She was glad she had worn a sweater.

Brian made his rounds with the coffee pot. He topped off Liz’s cup and looked down at the empty chair. “So, where’s Romeo this morning?”

“Romeo?” Liz gave a quizzical smile. “Oh, he’ll be along. You know he’s a little pokey on Sunday. Maybe I can hurry him up. I’m hungry.” Liz picked up her cell phone. After two rings, the timer started counting the seconds. Liz heard muffled music and then the call ended. She tried again and this time the call went to his voicemail. “Hey, where are you?” She put the phone on the table and looked up at Brian. “First music and then voicemail.”

“Interesting.” Brian saw Roland turn the corner and head for the restaurant at a quick pace. “Speak of the devil. Here he comes.”

Liz waved; Roland nodded back. He got to the table and swung the ever-present backpack off his shoulder, put it down, and gave Liz the slightest peck, just barely touching her cheek. “Sorry, I overslept.” He searched her expression for anything different, anything suspicious.

“Well, you’re here now,” said Liz with a smile. She lightly touched her cheek where he kissed her.

“Cup of coffee please.”

“You bet, Casanova.” Brian filled the cup set out for Roland.

“Casanova? Okaaay.” Brian gave Roland a mischievous smile and then asked innocently, “By the way, how did things go after you left?”

Roland ignored Brian. “What do you say we order?”

“You know what I want.” Liz closed the menu and handed it to Brian.

“Eggs Benedict for me and the strawberry waffles for Liz.”

“So that’s eggs Benedict… and the sweet strawberry waffle surprise for the sweetest gal around.” Brian wrote the order and continued, “Liz, if I were ten years younger and you were a bit older, we could ditch this guy. I’d do any and everything to win and keep your heart.”

Roland winced. A vision of Chuck with his arm draped over Liz’s shoulder wormed its way into his thoughts.

Liz blushed. “That’s so sweet of you.”

“And we’re so hungry,” rejoined Roland. Brian nodded and left.

Roland unzipped the backpack and pulled out the Alchimista Beneficium.

“Come on, Rol. I want to talk about us.” She put her hand on his.

“Sure, but before we talk about us, tell me… how did things go last night?” Roland crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair.

“Oh, that. It went okay, I suppose.” There was little enthusiasm in her voice. “That Mr. Weinberg--he’s our prospective client from New York… he really didn’t give much of an answer one way or the other. I think he just wanted to be wined and dined.” Liz couldn’t help noticing Roland’s posture and the piercing way he looked at her.

“So, what did you and Chuck do afterwards?”

“I’m glad you asked.” She sighed and reached out for Roland’s hand. He remained with his arms crossed. She took her hand back. “Chuck asked me to go over to his place afterwards and have champagne to celebrate. I thanked him. He really has been so helpful and generous.”

“So, how was the champagne?”

“I’ll never know.”

Roland’s eyes involuntarily opened wider. His shoulders stooped, and his arms uncrossed themselves and slid down until his hands rested on the tabletop. “What do you mean, you’ll never know?” He had already guessed the answer. In a twisted way, he wanted Liz to be guilty of the same thing he was.

“I really wanted to see his house and meet his wife, Nicole. I talked to her on the phone enough times. At first I kind of felt honored. But then he said we’d be there alone. He told me Nicole would be gone for the weekend visiting her mom in Phoenix, like three times.”

“You went, right?”

“No. He was getting a little weird. He called me ‘sweetheart’ a couple of times and had this puppy dog look in his eyes. After the dinner I thanked him for the invite and told him I was tired. He pulled over, let me out, and called me a cab. Then I went back to the office, got my car, and drove home. It was maybe ten-thirty.”

Roland dug himself out from under the weight of her words. He decided then and there that he would take his misadventure with Lila to his grave.

He now understood what Brian meant by “do something.” The “something” was to strengthen Roland and Liz’s relationship, not undermine it. The “something” should have been the surprise rendezvous with Liz at Croce’s bar.

“So, what was that question Brian asked? How things went last night?”

“Really nothing to speak of.” His soul went cold for an instant.

Liz could tell by his silence and the distant look in his eyes that something was bothering him. She hoped to bring him back. “Well, did you take my advice?”

Roland didn’t want to give anything away. “About what?”

“The thesis?”

Some of Roland’s enthusiasm returned. “Yes. I have decided to do my thesis on alchemy.” He picked up the Alchimista Beneficium and immediately felt at peace.

“Alchemy,” she repeated.

“You know, the philosophy of alchemy and the human spirit. I haven’t quite zeroed in on the exact theme yet, but I still have a couple of weeks, and then I can be finished within the year.”

Liz sat back in the chair and crossed her arms. “I’m really glad you have a topic. Let’s talk about that later. Remember why we’re here.”

Roland nodded that he did. He had a hard time looking at Liz.

“Roland, where do you see us in five years?”

He wished it were five years from last night. “Five years? Geez… hopefully by then I’ll be published and have my doctorate and be teaching.”

Liz’s patience was stretched. “Listen to the question this time. Where do you see us in five years?”

“I just told you.”

“That was you, not us.”

“Well, where do you see us in five years?”

“Married and living in our own place at the beach or out in the country; it doesn’t matter where. I see you coming home from work, happy to see me, and me taking care of our kids. I could work out of a home office. I see us as a family. That’s where I want us to be in five years.”

His guilt overpowered him. Right now anything he said would seem false and insincere. Roland was sick at heart. He looked at Liz, this good, honest, down-to-earth person who trusted him. He owed her the truth but was too much of a coward to tell her. He fell back on the past. “First things first, I’ve got to finish my thesis.” Roland sipped his coffee and became nervous and chatty. “Know why I like the Renaissance? People back then lived a much simpler life. No computers, just books or storytellers. Did you know they had more religious feast days off than work days? Not like now where everything is so fast-paced and noisy and dirty and the only thing people think about is money or pushing someone out of the way to get it. Sometimes I wish I was in that other time and place.”

Liz felt she lost her moment, and worse, it was twisted back onto itself and Roland took it in a different direction. She couldn’t really fault him too much. He had finally decided on a subject for his thesis and, though she didn’t bubble with enthusiasm, she was relieved and happy for him. “We’re in the here and now. You can’t live in the past, and why would you want to?”

“What’s so great about now?” Roland made a veiled confession. “People lie. They don’t keep their word. Everybody is suspicious of everyone else. Ignorance and superstition are applauded. Just watch the news. All of these things are the acceptable norm. I think I might be happier living then. Think about it. People had to be nicer to each other to survive. They had a personal code they could follow.”

“You’re right about some things. The news just shows us bad things about human nature. So, you’re not happy now? You know it doesn’t take much to be happy, that is, if you want to be.”

“Liz, it’s not that I’m unhappy. It’s just that things have changed. We never go anywhere just to go. That was the whole point yesterday about going to the street fair, just to walk around holding hands and looking at all the things and different people. I really wish we had gone. I wish things were the way they used to be before you started working for Chuck.”

“I can’t help it if Chuck needed me to work last night.” Liz tried not to be too defensive. “Roland, it can’t be like it was before. It just can’t. Don’t you think of the future?”

“Sure.” Roland was visibly subdued.

“Roland, we’re just not the same people we were a few years ago.”

Roland sipped his coffee and took his time to answer. “Well, no, I don’t suppose you are, but I am.”

Liz softened. “Sweetheart, everything we do now shapes the future--not only ours, but our kids’ and our grandkids’. We’ve already come quite a ways together. Think of it, you’re in the masters program and I’ve got a great job.” She took his hand, tugged it and smiled until the sullen look left his face. “We’ve got a lot to look forward to.”

Brian served Liz and Roland their breakfast. “There you go. More coffee or anyone?”

“In a few minutes,” said Liz. “Now, what was it you wanted to tell me last night that couldn’t seem to wait?” Liz speared a strawberry with her fork and slipped it into her mouth.

Before Roland could answer, a pearl gray BMW double-parked in front of The Edelweiss. Lila got out of the passenger side, stepped onto the sidewalk, and leaned over the rail. “Oh, yoo-hoo there, Roland!” She waved her hands and her voice was sugary sweet. “I have something you left in the bedroom last night.” Lila put Roland’s cell phone on the table. “You are really good at keeping your word. You said you’d be here patching up your relationship at brunch and here you are. Kudos.”

Roland was speechless and horrified. Liz sat wide-eyed, trying to understand what was going on.

Lila continued in a catty and overly innocent way. “I just want to say it was a night to remember. Your guy here is a real stallion.” She glanced at Liz. “Oh, you must be Liz. Poor Liz.” Lila looked over at Roland. “Here’s a little something for your time.” Lila reached into her pants pocket, pulled out a Krugerrand, and flipped it to Roland. He made a clumsy but successful catch and held the coin in his hand without even looking at it. “And now, just like that… woo-woo.” Lila got back into the car and headed off.

Roland cleared his throat, took a sip of water, and swallowed hard. “Now, before you jump to any conclusions, let me tell you what happened.”

“What was that about? Who the heck is she?”

“Last night after you called and told me you were going to Croce’s with Chuck, I got another call from you a few minutes later. It was one of those pocket calls when the phone calls all by itself. I heard you and your boss making plans for after your business meeting. I heard him invite you to his place, and you said something like ‘well, my boyfriend doesn’t have to know everything I do.’ What was I supposed to think?”

“A little more of me than that! I guess you don’t know me at all. And I sure don’t know you anymore.”

“It’s not what you think, honey.” Roland could barely look Liz in the eyes. “This is what happened…”

“Don’t bother, stallion. You said you’re the same person you were five years ago. Well, you’re not. If you want to live in the past so bad, maybe that’s where you should go look for your soul and find out who you really are.”

Liz shut down. She hoped this day would never come. But here she was, that unsure child coping with her need to be loved and belong and her self-worth. Liz slipped into herself, but the hurt and the anger were building.

“Liz, let me explain,” Roland pleaded. He absently slipped the coin and the cell phone into his pocket.

“There’s nothing to explain,” she said calmly. Liz sat up straight and relaxed her shoulders. The glare was gone from her eyes. “I’m sure with the higher education that I helped pay for you’ll figure it all out. Tell yourself whatever you want to. But spare me, please.” This was the first time Liz ever referred to the loans she had made Roland over the years.

“I’ll pay you back.”

Liz gave an uninterested nod.

“I said I would and I will. I promise.”

“You promise? You say a lot of things.”

Brian returned to the table with a coffee pot. He felt the air bristle between the two. Liz looked up at Brian. “Make mine to go, please.”

Brian saw the wounded looks in both of their eyes as he transferred Liz’s breakfast into a Styrofoam box. Liz stood, her chin quivered, and tears shown in her eyes. “Thank you.” She could barely get the words out.

“Oh no, what is it, sweetheart?” Brian hated to see Liz crying. He put his hand on her shoulder.

“Ask him. I’m sure Roland has some explanation.” She gave Brian an awkward hug and kissed his cheek. “Goodbye,” she whispered.

Both men watched Liz leave. Once beyond the iron railing she handed the container to the sleepy-eyed homeless man named Freddy, who graciously accepted her kindness.

Brian looked at the stunned Roland. “Oh man, you screwed up royally. I’ve known you two for a long time. I don’t know who to feel sorrier for, you or Liz. I’m leaning toward Liz. What did you do?”

“Man, this is so stupid.” Roland looked at Brian for some kind of support or manly understanding.

Brian scratched the back of his neck and slowly answered. “You didn’t sleep with that blonde from last night, did you?”

Roland sat there numb and silent, staring at his empty coffee cup.

“You did, didn’t you? How could you do that?”

“It was all a misunderstanding. Liz stood me up again last night and then I got one of those unintentional calls from her phone and I overheard her and her goddamn boss talking about going back to his place and drinking champagne and she said I didn’t have to know about it.” Roland’s reasons sounded pretty weak, even to him.

“And you really think she would do that? Liz loves--or loved--you. She’d do anything for you. I don’t think there’s a mean bone in her body. You blew it, my friend.”

“What about you? You kept telling me to go, ‘Do something.’”

“I sure the hell didn’t tell you to go cheat on your girlfriend. And don’t think you can park this trainwreck on my doorstep.”

“Jesus, cut me some slack. I just lost my girlfriend.”

“No, Einstein, you didn’t lose her. You dropkicked her out of your life. There you go again: I just lost my girlfriend. Did you think about how she lost the last six or seven years of her life waiting for you to grow up?”

“Okay, okay, I get it.”

“Do you? She wanted a commitment from you.” Brian handed Roland the bill.

“I get it, I get it.” Roland stood, slung the backpack over his shoulder, and reached into his pocket. When he pulled out a twenty-dollar bill, the coin Lila had tossed to him also came out. It fell to the floor and rolled, hitting Brian’s shoe.

Brian picked up the coin. “Where’d you get this thing?”

Roland was still in a daze. “Oh, Lila Thurston gave it to me this morning for helping her last night. What is it?”

“She came here?” Brian was surprised.

Roland nodded.

“Good Lord, you didn’t stand a chance.” Brian judged the coin’s weight. He rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger. He looked at the imprint and even the edge. He dropped it on the table several times and smiled when he heard the dull thunk it made when it hit. “It’s a fake. It could be polished bronze or gold wash. It’s a pretty fair copy of a gold Krugerrand. I’ve been collecting them for my retirement. I’ve got a couple of dozen; this one just doesn’t feel like the others. And there’s a really faint mold line around the edge.” He handed it to Roland.

“This is perfect. Just perfect. What am I supposed to do?”

Brian stated what he thought was obvious. “Do you really have to be hit over the head? I don’t know. Why don’t you grow a pair, run after Liz, and beg her to take you back?” Brian sadly shook his head. “That’s something you’re going to have to figure out all by your lonesome. Good luck. See you around.”

“Yeah, see ya.” He didn’t quite know what to do. He took a step and realized his shoe was untied. Roland knelt down to tie it, but the backpack threw him off balance and he shifted his position to keep from falling over. When he tried to stand up, he hit his head on the metal rim of the table. He hit his head hard. “Goddammit, what’s next?”

Roland stormed out from behind the iron railing onto the sidewalk.

Roland hurried along; his heart pounded, and his lungs felt like ice. After the first block, he slowed his pace. He was in a state of walking shock.

Roland asked himself in a loud, remorseful whisper, “Oh, Liz, what did I do to you?” He had no real reason to doubt her. None. And now he knew it. Doubting Liz was merely a reflection of the doubt he had in himself and the escapist life he didn’t want to admit he was living. The more he thought about their relationship, Roland concluded that his romantic machinations and little love tokens, the intimate scenarios he created, were stage directions for the roles he and Liz chose. Liz dutifully played her part until lately anyway, because she believed in the ideal and sanctity of first love. Roland was the indecisive, needy student who kept putting his life on hold, and would have continued to do so as long as Liz let him.

“Damn that Lila. Why did she have to do that to me this morning?” Roland heard his dad’s words: “Don’t stick your neck out for nobody.” He momentarily panicked when he realized how much his life would change because of playing defender to Lila.

Roland lowered his head and focused on the sidewalk directly in front of him. He stuck his hands deep into his pockets and walked at a more deliberate pace. He found walking with no real destination soothing. His attention was drawn to a poorly dressed man with nervous eyes who entered the sidewalk from an alley doorway. He headed directly toward Roland with an unnatural slouching gait and mirrored Roland’s sidestep, causing both to stop. The intensity of the man’s eyes was disarming. Roland leaned back on his heels. The man also leaned back and looked up into Roland’s eyes, wagged his head from side to side as he spoke with a wine-scented voice, “I’m no hero. You’re no hero. There are no more heroes. None.” He looked at his reflection in the store window and saluted. Then he slipped ghostlike in between the store front and Roland, and disappeared down the street.

“What the…?” Roland shook his head, trying to dismiss this latest bewilderment. He walked a little further and stopped in front of a travel agency. There was a poster of the snow-clad Italian Alps against a deep blue sky, and a poster of a sunlit Bavarian castle. Roland casually glanced at the posters. “I’d give anything to do this whole thing over again,” he mused.

Roland pulled out his phone and called Liz. “Come on, pick up,” he said impatiently. Finally he heard the familiar message. “Hi, you’ve reached Liz Parker and the sometimes phone of Roland Hughes. Leave a message after the beep and have a great day.” Roland ended the call without leaving a message.

The sky darkened as clouds rolled across the horizon and climbed high into the sky, billowing into backlit grottos and bizarre formations. A strong breeze whipped through the alleyways and down the streets. He arrived on the very western edge of North Park where the older residential and commercial co-mingled into a menagerie of art deco, Craftsman, and Spanish-style architecture.

Roland turned down Arizona Street, past Wightman, and then for no reason down to Landis. He took a right on Louisiana and headed toward Myrtle. There were jacaranda trees here and there and the sidewalks under them were carpeted with lavender flowers. A sole shaft of sun shone through the clouds and poured golden light down the front of a Victorian house just down the block. For an instant, the house and sky began to quiver. The ray of sun remained constant, but the house flickered. Roland felt sick and dizzy. He grabbed onto a tree branch. His eyes were clouded by an eerie red light.

Roland caught his breath and when he opened his eyes he found himself on a tree-shaded country road that stretched out in front and behind him. Roland stood motionless and watched a young short-haired girl dressed in Renaissance-style clothing pass by him without even a glance or an inkling he was there. The girl nodded to a young man on foot who was coming toward her.

The young man, also in like style clothing, had a pack over his shoulder and a walking stick with a natural crook in the end. The girl and the young man said something to each other. To Roland the exchange was all echoes and unintelligible. The young man took off his hat and turned it around in his hand as if looking it over, put it back on, smiled at the young girl, and moved on. The traveler passed by Roland without so much as a nod, and then hesitated and quizzically looked straight through Roland. He shrugged his shoulders and continued.

In what seemed like less than a heartbeat, Roland was back holding onto the tree branch a half block from Myrtle Street. He still felt queasy, but that passed. After he took a few deep breaths, he walked on. He heard hurried footsteps coming up behind him and the excited banter between a man and a woman.

“This estate sale will be the best. This guy has museum pieces, the real deal. They say he was quite a collector,” the man said, a little out of breath.

“I can’t wait,” the woman giggled. “Come on, do you think it’s true what they say about him?”

“Get real. An alchemist in the twenty-first century?”

The couple passed Roland, one on each side. The man answered the woman. “Who cares? All I know is he’s got some really great stuff. We may never run into this kind of collection again.” Roland watched the man take the woman’s hand, and they playfully pulled one another along until they reached the sun-drenched porch of the Victorian house. They dashed up the steps and through the front door.

As he approached the Victorian house, a strong and cold gust of wind pushed hard against Roland. He grabbed onto the handrail to steady himself. He held on when he received another blast of now rain-laden wind and decided to take refuge inside the foyer. He entered a trove of medieval and Renaissance treasures.

The front room’s walls were hung with shields, swords, paintings, tapestries, and framed parchments. There were bronze and marble statues, antique furniture, a suit of armor, and different-sized battle axes. Some of the shields and swords were nicely displayed, and some were carelessly left about. Spears and short lances were propped in the corners.

Every tabletop, desktop, and countertop was cluttered with bizarre beakers, tarnished copper-coiled distillers, crocks, different-colored hand-blown jars, dozens of ancient little boxes, and oddly shaped tarnished metal containers. Roland eyed a wooden case standing on end, open. The Star of David on the front of the case was faded and the paint was chipped. The interior of the box had nineteen niches for small bottles. A few small blue bottles were still in their places.

Roland was drawn to the narrow library table that was pushed up against the wall at its display of two human skulls, both missing their lower jaw bones. One of the skulls was decorated in black and red paint with geometric designs and the date “1351” painted across its brow. There was an articulated human hand on a wooden base, three stuffed birds, and an indistinguishable something in a sealed glass container.

Roland caught a glimpse of the bubbly couple. They were in the next room in conversation with a nicely coiffed lady in a business suit who was holding a clipboard. Roland entered. The sales lady quickly looked him over and dismissed him with a roll of her eyes.

The man and woman were enthralled with a strange and beautiful piece of furniture. The cabinet was maybe six feet tall with a gently peaked top. A sunburst made of bronze sat in its cartouche under the peak. The sides of the piece had a definite feminine form. There were two doors that followed the same curve of the sides. Under the doors was a bow-bottomed drawer. Below the drawer there was a field of bronze, shield-shaped scales. Each scale had an arcane symbol or sign. The scales covered the bottom portion of the piece and ran down the curved legs. The legs ended in gilded hooves.

The sales lady held up her clipboard and flipped a few pages back. She addressed the couple. “This is the first piece that our collector acquired. I’m not sure where he found it, but there are strong design elements and construction techniques that put the cabinet in the last half of the fourteenth century. The letters “CL” are carved right here.” She stepped near to the cabinet and pointed to the initials. She quickly took her arm away, winced, and rubbed her hand. “Could be the maker’s initials or Roman numerals. It’s known as the Alchemist Cabinet.”

The man whispered to the woman. “Look at that price; we can flip it at auction for twice, or even three times that.” He went to the cabinet, pulled on the ring, and tried to open the door. The door did not budge. He tried again, this time with both hands. The door opened slightly and then slammed shut. “Ow. What the heck?” His lips were pursed in pain. His fingertips were bleeding. “This is impossible! There’s nothing sharp to cut myself on.”

The woman pulled a hanky out of her purse and cleaned the blood away. Neither could find any cut in the skin.

“Let me try, sweetheart.” She went to the cabinet and pulled on the rings. She let go immediately and put her fingertips to her temples. “Oh God, it hurts so much.” She closed her eyes.

The man went to her side and took her arm. “She gets these migraines. She needs to sit.” With the help of the sales lady, they guided her away to a sofa in the next room.

Roland approached the cabinet. He gently touched the sunburst and the outline of the cartouche. He ran his fingers over an ugly gash in the wood just above the door. Roland tugged on the pull rings. The doors opened easily. The cabinet was packed with scrolls, papers, and parchments. There were strange little tools, a primitive telescope, and a few small blue bottles that could be mates to those in the wooden case he looked at earlier. The inner walls and door backs were covered with detailed diagrams. There were Latin phrases scribbled here and there. Roland reached in and lovingly stroked the contents.

The drawer rattled. Roland opened it. It was filled with illustrations on velum, drawings, loosely bound papers, and a few small pouches and boxes. In the rear right-hand corner, quite visible, was a legal-size envelope. The white envelope looked very much out of place surrounded by the yellowed papers and ancient artifacts. He picked up the envelope when saw his name and today’s date type written on it and opened it.

It contained thirty one-hundred-dollar bills. Roland closed the envelope and slipped it into his pocket. The doors and the drawer quickly closed by themselves. He tugged on the pull, but it would not open.

The sales lady returned to the room. She gave Roland a dry look. “I don’t suppose you brought your reserve invitation, did you?”

“No, I didn’t. I didn’t know I needed one.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Well, you’re here and haven’t been driven out of the room by that thing yet.” She looked over at the cabinet and shook her head.

“Do you know anything about the collector?” Roland asked.

“I understand his name was Aaron Newton. He was supposed to be related to Sir Isaac Newton, but who knows? He did make a fortune in precious metals before and during the Vietnam war. After Vietnam, he was a terror on Wall Street. Then he disappeared or went into seclusion. They found him dead in his bed four months ago. His next of kin lives in Europe and they hired us to sell off his personal property.”

Roland listened intently. “How much for the cabinet?”

She looked Roland up and down. Being a consummate salesperson, she answered, “We’re asking four thousand five hundred.” She sighed and continued, “Since it’s been so… let’s say so inaccessible to anyone other than you, why don’t you make me an offer?”

Roland took the envelope out of his pocket. “Three thousand dollars cash.” He held the envelope out to her.

“Sold.” She took the envelope, opened it, and quickly counted the hundred-dollar bills. “Let’s get you a receipt and your address. We can deliver after four today. And thank you very much, sir.”

The rain had stopped. Roland stepped outside and headed back to the granny flat. As he walked, the last twenty-four hours seemed like a dream.

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