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robert scott

New Fiction


by Robert Scott

       “Noch ein Stück, Herr Scheid?”   The formally clad waiter brandished a silver tray stacked with Herrentorte, a semi-circle of chocolate wedges.
“Was ist?” Helmat Scheid didn’t understand the café’s newest waiter. The younger man seemed pleasant enough, but he spoke German like a Slavic seamstress. It didn’t help that Helmat was three schnapps past dessert. He’d moved on to coffee twenty minutes earlier, but it was slow to grip.
       “Another slice of cake, sir?” Nervous, the seamstress slowed his speech noticeably.
       “No, thank you,” Helmat exhaled a cloud of Turkish tobacco smoke toward a flickering gas lamp overhead.
       “For Frau Sheid, perhaps?”
       “No, no, but . . .”
       “Another Mélange for me and—” Helmat frowned, “—a glass of Riesling for Lizzy, I suppose.”
       “Heurigen, please.” Helmat thought the season’s wine tasted like chilled cat piss, but Lizzy wouldn’t notice. Rather than argue about how much she was drinking, the sweet Riesling wouldn’t add much to the alcoholic avalanche forming just behind Elizabeth Scheid. She’d finished a plum aperitif, four glasses of Burgenland Blaufrankish with dinner and a snifter of French digestif Helmat couldn’t pronounce before devouring a gargantuan slab of Herrentorte for dessert. Lizzy was on her third trip to the women’s water closet when the Slavic waiter came around pushing second helpings of pastry. Helmat preferred not to eat this late, but Lizzy had wanted to attend the State Opera revival of Fidelio. Now they shared a booth looking across the Gumpendorferstrasse. It would be 2:00 a.m. before he managed to get his wife out the door.
       Awaiting his second cup of coffee, Helmat listened for horse-drawn Fiaker making their way up and down the broad thoroughfare. Their hooves clapped off uneven cobblestones with a curiously predictable polyrhythm. Only in Vienna, Scheid thought and glanced back at the lamp and the smoky stain it left on the plaster ceiling.
       While warm tonight, stuffy and humid for October, Helmat hoped for a cool morning in which perhaps to steal an extra hour’s sleep. He didn’t believe Lizzy would need much convincing to forgo Mass, although it would earn them a barrage of disapproving glances the following Sunday. He made a mental note of the whereabouts of each utensil necessary to brew a pot of strong coffee, or if Lizzy decided to sleep late, he and their son, Karl, might go to the corner cafe for a bowl or two. And none of this Mélange nonsense. It would be Grosser Brauner for both of them, real coffee.
       “Your Mélange, sir,” the Slavic seamstress gave a polite nod.
       “Yes, thank you.” Helmat looked distrustfully at the creamy amalgam of steamed milk dusted lightly with cinnamon and chocolate.
       “And Frau Scheid’s wine, sir.”
       “Yes, just place it over there.” He made an open handed gesture toward Lizzy’s abandoned seat.
       “Anything else, sir?”
       “No, thank you.” Helmat groped for his cigarette case; the obsequious waiter pulled a box of matches from his vest pocket. “If you don’t mind me asking, sir . . .”
       “What’s on your mind?” Helmat enjoyed the distraction. The Slavic seamstress was about Karl’s age, a bit older perhaps, but similar enough.
       “How was the opera, sir? The performance this evening?”
       “Well, I. . .” he chose his words carefully. “I think honestly that together, you and I could have shat a better Fidelio than that ward of bloated prima donnas managed with six weeks’ preparation.”
       “Very good, sir.” The younger man stifled a laugh and slipped through the maze of tables toward the kitchen.
       Helmat sipped his coffee. He winced as it crept unannounced through the froth to burn his upper lip. He reached for a silver sugar bowl standing on elaborately sculpted Rococo legs that reminded him of a dragon he had seen in one of Karl’s story books long ago. Dropping in a cube, the Viennese litigator peeked about the café, ensured no one was watching, and slyly dunked a second sugar into the porcelain cup.
       Tonight Café Sperl was packed close, thick with smoke and stale, three-hundred-year-old air. Helmat felt the first beads of sweat break out on his forehead while others ran in tiny rivers into his frilly blouse. His stomach — engorged and disagreeable from too much revelry — rumbled, threatening to burst through the row of tiny buttons. Helmat hadn’t worn this suit since the previous February, a ball at one of the first district palaces, and now could feel the wool of his jacket tugging across his back and shoulders.
       He’d put on weight.
       “Too many of these foppish French coffees,” he whispered and mopped his brow with a handkerchief that had probably been in his pocket since the Battle of Hastings. Helmat shrugged, checked again for spies, and spirited a third sugar into the froth.
       Stirring absent-mindedly, he allowed his gaze to wander through the room. Delicate floral arrangements adorned the tables; most drooped now with fatigue after a night on duty. Behind one, irritatingly camouflaged by a thick cluster of yellow wildflowers, was the enormous, albeit glorious, bosom of Frau Kinder, the young banker, Dietrich Kinder’s wife. Helmat assumed that behind the foliage the rest of Frau Kinder — he couldn’t recall her first name — was attached to the delicious mounds but didn’t care and artfully slipped back and forth across his chair to glean a less obstructed view. The night shift, brutal on the flowers, hadn’t had any noticeable impact on Frau Kinder. Helmat wracked his memory to recall a time when Lizzy’s bosom had stood so boldly aloft. Twenty? Thirty years ago? Never?
       Draped in a brocaded bodice that shifted charitably as Kinder spoke with another young woman, the ivory swells shone intermittently with light from the gas lamps before falling back into shadow behind the cursed thatch of yellow weeds. Helmat promised he would find any evidence of this plant in his own garden and summarily tear it out by its roots first thing the following morning, well, after coffee and an extra hour’s sleep, of course. Now, looking comically like a child’s metronome set to beat a waddling adagio, he rocked in lazy three-quarter time with the mathematical gait of Frau Kinder’s animated conversation.
       Only in Vienna, he thought again and squinted in hopes of improving his vision, fearing he would call too much attention to himself were he to don his glasses and return to staring across the crowded restaurant. Like Lizzy, Frau Kinder had also drunk too much. Helmat envied young Dietrich the evening he would have when the couple returned home. “He may not wait,” Scheid said into the half empty coffee cup. “He might decide to pounce on those swollen devils in the cab on their way up the Wahringerstrasse . . . why, he’s young, he might even—”
       “You’re staring, dear.” Trying to sound imperious and threatening, Lizzy Sheid came off as drunk and haughty.
       Helmat looked up at her, swallowed his disgust and smiled. “Nonsense.” He nodded toward her chair. “Sit down. I’ve ordered you another wine.”
       “Ah, good.” At fifty-three, Lizzy was as frumpy and wrinkled as a wet sack of flour. Too many years of afternoon alcohol had mercilessly exacted their toll.
       Helmat wondered what sort of creature might be flattered by his wife’s dress, but came up with nothing. Perhaps a squid, he thought, sneaking a parting glance at Frau Kinder’s breasts.
       “She is beautiful.”
       “Who’s that?”
       “Kinder’s wife,” Lizzy twirled one hand above her wine glass, “Whatever her name is.”
       Helmat shook his head. “I wouldn’t know.”
       “Oh, stop it for pity’s sake.”
       “What? Lizzy, I’m old enough to be her father.”
       “Which makes it all the more reprehensible of you, staring at her like that. Be sure to wipe your chin, Helmat. You don’t want any of your friends to see you drooling.”
       “Keep your voice down.” Helmat caught his partner, Peter Hellmich, watching them; he forced a smile, waved and reached for another cigarette.
       “I have them, too.”
       “What’s that,” He avoided looking at his wife.
       “Breasts, Helmat. I have them, not that you would know.” Lizzy lifted her own, displaying them beneath the flour sack dress.
       “Great lords, Lizzy, stop that!” Helmat whispered. “You’re embarrassing me . . . yourself, for Christ’s sake.”
       “Not that they’re anything like whatshername’s . . . Kinder’s.” Still supporting herself on a makeshift shelf, Lizzy tilted her head far enough around the thatch of flowers to take an unimpeded look at the younger woman. Cocking an eyebrow, she muttered, “Hmmm, not bad. By comparison, I’m not hauling around much more than a couple smallish bags of shriveled liver spots.” Lizzy’s voice rose, when she realized several other patrons listened indiscreetly. The First-District crowd traded in gossip as assiduously as they traded in stocks or bonds. “But let’s see how she looks after three children have sucked on the bloody things for a decade or so. That’ll take the wind out of her sails; don’t you doubt it.”
       Helmat leaned over their table, nearly popping several buttons in his shirt. “You’re drunk. You’re slurring, and we’re going, now.”
       Lizzy wiped her mouth on the back of her wrist, smearing fresh lipstick. She, too, leaned forward. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here. It’ll be just you, me, and whatshername’s teats.”
       Helmat buried his face in his hands; they came away wet. “Christ, but it’s too damned hot in here.” He wiped his forehead again and whispered, “please. Let’s go.”
       “Do you imagine yourself with her . . . rutting like farm animals?”
       “Oh, Lizzy, don’t. Please.”
       “Or did you?”
       “No, I—”
       “Christ, you did!” Lizzy slurped what remained of her wine, then turned, hoping to find the Slavic seamstress. Waving in alcoholic sign language, she gestured for another round.
       “Elizabeth, do not order another drink.” Helmat reached for his wife, as unobtrusively as possible, but his elbow knocked over the sugar bowl, spilling cubes across the marble. “Damnit,” he brushed the granules from his sleeve and gathered up the errant cubes. “Lizzy, I did not sleep with her. I glanced at her for a moment while you were in the WC — in the WC for the third time tonight, I might add — and that was all. Yes, she is an attractive young woman, but no, I have not rutted with her as you, in your esoteric way, like to put it.”
       Lizzy Scheid looked confused, as if something important eluded her. An uncomfortable silence slogged between them. Finally, she said, “No, I suppose you didn’t sleep with her. You’re coveting her too much. No one is that good, Helmat, truly.”
       “Are we having this conversation? Are we? Wipe your mouth.”
       Lizzy did, then shrugged, “It’s unconventional; I admit, but we so rarely have any conversation, the dairy heiress over there will do for this evening.”
       Helmat tried to change the subject. “I want to forgo Mass tomorrow.”
       “Fine,” Lizzy pretended to look for something in her purse.
       “I want to spend the day with Karl. He’s been—”
       “Have you asked him?” Lizzy interrupted, snapping the bag closed. “I’m not sure he wants to spend the day with you, Helmat.”
       The room shifted; the walls tilted in on themselves, then groaned back into place. Helmat mopped his forehead on his sleeve this time, forgetting his handkerchief altogether. He reached for his coffee cup. It was empty. His vision blurred; he struggled to locate their waiter near the bar. Breathing through his mouth, Helmat waved the young man over. Christ, but he looks like Karl.
       He came quickly, carrying another glass of Riesling on a silver tray. ‘Sir?”
       “I’ll have a beer, please, a Morchl.”
       “Right away, sir.”
       Helmat watched him go. Wrestling with his cigarette case, he broke one, tossed it into the coffee cup, lit a second and took a long drag. “Why would you say something like that?”
       “Like what, dear?” Ignoring any rules of decorum, Lizzy gripped the glass in her fist and gulped a mouthful of local wine.
       “About Karl. Why would you say something like that to me?” His words puddled tonelessly on the table.
       “I’m just not sure your son wants to spend the day with you. That’s all.”
       Helmat swallowed. His throat closed for a moment, and he wished for something cool to drink. I’ll even take the chilled cat piss. He wiped a dusting of sugar onto the floor. “You are a filthy warthog, Elizabeth Scheid.”
       “I’m telling you the truth. And who could blame him? Look at the way you pressure him. Look at your expectations. You never let up, and you only want to spend time with him after a nasty bout of self loathing. Jesus, you’re predictable. He’s not stupid, dear. He can see how lopsided you are, how you never lean on the girls that way.”
       “But the girls are different . . .” Helmat started, then changed his tack. “No. I’m not discussing this with you. You’re drunk. You’re angry with me, and I am not discussing our son with you this evening. Not another word.”
       “As you wish, dear,” Lizzy covered a belch with one hand and grimaced at the flavor. “But I’m telling you—”
       “No!” Helmat cut her off. “You’re telling me nothing.”
       Lizzy’s face reddened. She leaned over again, motioning to him with a curled finger. It wasn’t that she sought privacy; rather, Elizabeth Scheid wanted to deliver this salvo as a broadside, and she wanted to be in close when it struck. “You think he’s a fool, Helmat? You think he can’t see you drinking, smoking, carousing with young women, ignoring me and his sisters, coveting so many things you’ll never have? You think he can’t see it? Do you think he doesn’t realize who you are? Do you think he wants to grow up and be anything at all like you?”
       Helmat didn’t answer.
       “He’s not going to law school. You’re the only one who doesn’t realize it. He doesn’t want what you want; he doesn’t want to be who you are. So, go on: smoke, drink, eat too much, covet, rut. I don’t care, Helmat, but know this: your son can’t save you, and you should be embarrassed for expecting him to.”
       Redolent of Turkish smoke and whipped cream, the air conspired again to render Helmat Scheid senseless. His hands shook. He gripped the table to steady them and watched as the dragon bowl jounced and sidled toward the edge. When it tumbled over, he ignored it. He ignored the Slavic seamstress who hurried to clean up the mess. He ignored his friends and peers, who stopped to stare or gibe:
       A few too many old man?
       Time for brandy and bed!
       Frau Scheid, you better get him in a cab!
       Helmat stared at his wife. It had been decades since he had married her and years since they had loved one another, but he failed to recall any of it now. Instead, staring at her in her flour sack dress, he realized only that she was right.
       “He can’t save you.” Lizzy whispered.
       Helmat drank the beer, cool and wonderful, a reprieve. He carefully placed the mug on their table — it wouldn’t do to break a glass; the sugar bowl had been clamorous enough. Helmat tried one last time to right the overturned pillars in his mind. “He and I . . . Karl and I are . . . I’m not expecting him to save me. I only want what’s best for him. What he and I have is . . .” His voice trailed off, a tremulous echo of itself.
       “Herr Scheid!” Dietrich Kinder staggered over, his wife — Patricia, that’s it, for Christ’s sake; it’s Patricia! — in tow.
       Lizzy intervened: standing, smiling, fawning, hugging, jabbering on about Fidelio, the food, the Heurigen wines, the Herrentorte, anything to keep interlopers from sidling their way inside the periphery of her husband’s thoughts.
       She’s giving you a moment, Helmat thought. She didn’t have to, but she did. And wiping his forehead for good measure, Helmat rose, smiling, and greeted the inebriate Kinders, careful not to hug Patricia too tightly or for too long. Catching Lizzy’s eye, he nodded: it was time to go.
       “All right, if you must,” Patricia slurred.
       “Yes, we’ve got an early morning tomorrow,” Lizzy said, “Have to get to Mass.”
       “Say hello to your children,” Dietrich added, clapping Helmat on the back.
       “We will,” Helmat heard himself say. “We will.”

Robert Scott began writing fiction as a creative way to engage his father-in-law, Jay Gordon's imagination while Jay's body succumbed slowly to Lou Gehrig's Disease. The Hickory Staff (Orion/Gollancz, 2005) is the result of two years of storytelling over the phone, via email, and in day-long discussions about characters, plot twists, and mysteries that hopefully helped to distract Jay from his physical battles. Lessek's Key (Orion/Gollancz, 2006) and The Larion Senators (Orion/Gollancz, 2007) represent the remainder of Jay and Robert's collaboration, even though both books were released after Jay died.

Born sometime between RFK’s assassination and One Life to Live’s premiere, Robert studied music at Colby College before turning to education. He moved to Colorado where he worked as a teacher and school administrator and completed a doctorate at the University of Northern Colorado, because at the time writing 375 pages that no one would read seemed like a good idea. He works now as a high school teacher, encouraging unwilling students to trade their iPhones for a chapter or two of Henry David Thoreau. In 2009, he published a collection of short stories for young readers, The Great M&M Caper and Other Fourth Grade Adventures, which adults are not permitted to read (see his two, school-age children for rules & regulations governing this work.)

He is a guitarist and a distance runner (rarely simultaneously) whose goals include shaving ten minutes off his marathon time, playing Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor with no mistakes, and signing on as a middle reliever for the Boston Red Sox. He has two children involved in martial arts, baseball, soccer, arrow catching, and piano. Most days one can find him taxiing back and forth across the region, a mini tape recorder in hand and a laptop under one arm. He drinks too much coffee and often shouts at the 24-hour news channels. Robert’s latest novels, 15 Miles and its sequel, Asbury Park, are both Gollancz horror/crime releases.

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