Two For Tanner Page 3


I received Tuppence’s history a little at a time over a period of several hours after leaving the PAUL meeting. We drank several cups of coffee in a chrome-and-formica diner on 125th Street, ate sweet and pungent almond duck at the Great Shanghai, and wound up, happily enough, at my apartment on 107th Street. We sat on my couch drinking a Yugoslav white wine, which, though not particularly good, is not particularly bad either, and which is extremely cheap; the recent devaluation of the dinar had brought the price down to around 79¢ a bottle. We finished one bottle and got most of the way through a second, by which time we were assuring each other that the wine was really very good after all, wasn’t it, and that it seemed to improve with each glass.

And then Tuppence said, “You dig this li’l pickaninny, Bwana Evan? Do you now?”

“Ah, the natives are restless.”

“They are indeed. Do you think you might extinguish that barbaric cacophony” – we had been listening to a Miles Davis record – “and put on something tribal?”

I made sure Minna’s door was closed. Minna was a seven-year-old Lithuanian girl who had moved into my apartment several months previously, and who seemed likely to stay forever. She was sleeping soundly, and I closed her door and changed the jazz record for a Folkways recording of Kenyan and Ugandan chants, dances, and work songs. I turned the volume down low, and Tuppence bounced off the couch and turned the volume up high, and laughed gaily and kicked off her shoes and began to dance.

“Native girl dance for you, Bwana Evan.” Her white eyes rolled in her dark face. “Native girl make you hot with passion, wild with lust. Native girl turn you on, baby. You better believe it.”

I don’t know whether or not her dance was an authentic example of Kenyan tribal folk-dancing. I rather think not. It seemed a combination of African dance and current American styles, with the limbs loose, the hips shaking, the buttocks twitching, and the whole body transfigured by an endless chaotic rhythm. And through it all Tuppence’s lips showed a smile of eternal female knowledge, and her huge eyes twinkled in calculated abandon.

She was a striking girl. She was the wrong color to win a Miss America contest, the shade of good, well-rubbed walnut. She was tall and long-legged, with a high, protruding bottom and a flat stomach and full breasts. Her face was long, oval in shape, with a high, broad forehead and a cap of tight, kinky black curls.

So she danced, and we looked at each other, and something that had started building at the PAUL meeting clicked neatly and finally into place, and we both knew that the evening was going to end properly. Because the special magic was there. It is not often present, and without it there is really no reason on earth why a man and woman should bother having anything to do with one another. But when it is there, it is a very welcome thing indeed. It was there now, for both of us, and we both knew it and we both seemed happy.

“This step shows that the villagers are rejoicing that the great father has sent down rain.”

“The record jacket says it’s a war chant.”

“You may believe what you wish, Bwana.”

“You’re a fraud, Tuppence.”

The record went on, and Tuppence went on dancing, and I moved around the room turning off lights until only the shallow glow of one small lamp illuminated the room. My couch is one of those clever contrivances that turns into a bed when the occasion demands it. The occasion demanded it, so I pulled the proper levers and effected the desired metamorphosis. Then Miss T’pani Ngawa changed the leitmotif of the dance slightly, incorporating within the structure of basic African tribal rhythms certain dance patterns generally associated in times past with Union City, New Jersey.

Which is to say that she took off all her clothes.

“Bwana approve?”

“Bwana approve.”

“Ah! What Bwana doing?”

“Bwana going to integrate you,” I said.

“Oh, wow-”

Her skin was black velvet. I stroked her and she purred. “We are about to miscegenate,” I explained.

“Oh, groovy,” she said “Oh, like, wow. Bwana sure do know how to miscegenate. Oooo-”

Minna was particularly regal the next morning. She comes by it honestly, being the sole living descendant of Mindaugas, the last (and only) king of independent Lithuania. Mindaugas shuffled off this mortal coil some seven centuries ago, and with Lithuania incorporated in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, there’s no overwhelming demand for Lithuanian queens. When I first found her in Lithuania, Minna was being kept in a cheerless basement room by a pair of old maids who calmly awaited the restoration of the monarchy. I smuggled her home with me, and since then she’s been queening it in my apartment. She refuses to go to school, turns aside all thoughts of placing her in a foster home, chatters now and then in Lithuanian or New York English or Puerto Rican Spanish, and is generally fun to have around.

“I’m glad you’re going to live with us,” she told Tuppence gravely. “Evan says that a child needs both a mother and a father. Can you cook?”

“Not very well.”

“I suppose you can learn, though. Where are you from?”

“ Kenya.”

“That’s in Africa,” Minna said. “I learned that from Evan’s books. He has thousands of books and he said I can read as many as I want. I learn a lot of things from them. More than I would learn in school. Mikey says that school is a crock of shit, but I’m not supposed to say that. Mikey lives downstairs. I don’t have to go to school.”

“You’ll start school in the fall,” I said.

She ignored me. “This is a good place to live,” she told Tuppence. “I’m sure you’ll like it here. Can’t you cook anything?”

“Just human flesh.”

“Human flesh?”

“That’s all we eat in Africa. Human flesh.”

“I think,” Minna said carefully, “that you’re putting me on.”

Tuppence laughed.

“ Central Park is only a few blocks from here,” Minna went on. “There’s a zoo there, but you can’t go by yourself. It’s not allowed. It’s a children’s zoo, you see, and adults are not allowed.”

“Oh.”

“They can only go,” she said, “if they are accompanied by a child. If you’d like, Tuppence, I could accompany you. I mean, I’ve been to the zoo before, of course, but since you can’t go without a child, I would be willing to accompany you.”

“Why, that’s very sweet of you, Minna.”

“Just let me comb my hair.” Minna’s hair is long and blonde and very fine, and has a tendency to snarl. “I wish my hair were like yours. I bet you never have to comb it, do you?”

“Never.”

“You’re lucky,” Minna said. “You’re nice. I’m glad you’re going to live with us.” She smiled at me. “I’ll be back soon, Evan. I have to take Tuppence to the zoo.”

Tuppence did not live with us, of course. She had an apartment of her own and a job of her own and a life of her own, and we both felt it would be best to keep it that way. Her quartet got a three-week engagement at a downtown club, and sometimes I would pick her up after work and bring her back to 107th Street, and sometimes she would drop up during the day, generally getting trapped into taking Minna to the zoo. I was pretty busy myself around that time. I worked up a doctoral thesis (price – $1000) for a lazy graduate student at NYU on the socioeconomic implications of the Boxer Rebellion and wrote articles (no payment) for the Journal of Armenian Studies, the United Irishman, and several East European exile newsletters. I went to a great many meetings, listened to learn-a-language records, and read and replied to the great volume of mail, which makes me my mailman’s least favorite client. I sent money to Greece, to be smuggled into Yugoslavian Macedonia for my son, Todor. I received a coded newsletter from a friend in Bulgaria, decoded it, and had it mimeographed for dissemination to Bulgar exiles in the States. I did, in short, the things I usually do, and a month went by as months usually go by, and then Tuppence dropped in one afternoon and told me she was leaving the country.

“A State Department tour,” she said. “Deluxe treatment all the way. Manila, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Bangkok. This chick is going a long way from Nairobi, baby.”

“It sounds good. When do you leave?”

“Four days from tomorrow. Got to get a few dozen shots. Plague and cholera and all those good things. They threaten to make like a pincushion out of me, man. Then we get on a jet and fly. Big bird go over great water. Bangkok – do you believe it? It sounds dirty.”

“You have an obscene mind.”

“I’m hip, and don’t you love it? We’re supposed to have a command performance for the King of Thailand. The word is that he’s a swinger. He plays the clarinet or some such. Can you feature the king himself sitting in and wailing, and this little girl vocalizing? A long long way from Nairobi. Wow!”

She sat down, then hopped up again and did a fast two-step. “This State Department cat mentioned something about going to Vietnam to entertain the troops, and Jimmy wanted to know which side. He said he’d rather entertain the Vietcong. Then the little State Department cat got very much up tight about things, like his face was bleached, and Kendall told him Jimmy was just joking, that it was his sense of humor. Mr. State Department gave the kind of laugh that means he didn’t think it was funny, but everything stayed cool. After he split, Kendall was about ready to kill Jimmy for almost queering the whole arrangement. Jimmy said he didn’t like to compromise his political beliefs, and Kendall said that for a tour of the Far East he’d paint himself red, white, and blue if they wanted. Do you think it’s true what they say about Oriental men?”

“I thought it was Oriental girls that they say it about and I don’t think it’s true anyway.”

“Well, I suspect I’ll find out.”

“Oh, I’m sure you will.”

She sat down again. “Now you know I’ll always be true to you, Bwana Evan.”

“Oh, will you?”

“Mmmm.”

I saw her plane off at Kennedy Airport. There was a postcard from Manila, another from Tokyo, and a third from Hong Kong. I finished up the doctoral thesis, went to more meetings, and did a lot of reading. Then I got an odd letter from Bangkok:

Bwana Evan:

Bangkok is a gas but the bread is running low. It looks as though I’ll maybe have to sell my jewelry. As you know I have a very valuable collection. Do you have contacts that will prove helpful? Please let me know.

My first reaction – that Tuppence had lost her mind somewhere between New York and Bangkok – gave way to a feeling of general bewilderment. When one lives in a world of secret societies and underground political movements, and does odd jobs for a nameless U.S. undercover agency, one becomes accustomed to finding meanings in apparently meaningless messages. I read her letter over and over and decided that, if there was any hidden kernel of sense to it, I couldn’t spot it for the time being. Tuppence had a pair of long gold hoop earrings, and as far as I knew, that was the extent of her jewelry. Obviously jewelry was a euphemism for something, but I didn’t know what, and in the meantime there was nothing to do about it. We had joked about getting her a ruby to wear in her navel. Maybe that was what she was referring to. I didn’t know, and I stopped thinking about it.

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