A selection from The Blond Box

 Toby Olson


            The old coot waved the treasure map above his head, "last chance," and Handsfree watched the wealthy looking man as he slipped down from his stool and wended his way among the tables. It was ten o'clock , and he could see the cowboy only vaguely now, the shimmer of his figure under an awning through the rain-streaked window. The wealthy looking man had lifted his collar at the door, and a few other patrons in the bar were rising, some speaking of the arrival of this promised storm, others laughing quietly at the old coot and his offer. There were two dozen or more, Mexicans in overÐalls and Stetsons, a few merchants, the artist and his male comÐpanion, and a young couple, arÐchaeology students here for a dig. The girl's face was freckÐled, her hair a red flame.

            The old coot wore a suit, a shiny gabardine of rayon twill, and a black cape, the lining of which revealed itself as purple silk along the arm and shoulder.  His black lacquered cane hung from the brass rail, a third leg, its ferrule near the rim of a spittoon in silver, one of many nostalgic accoutrements placed here and there: The Last Chance Saloon, a history of a not so distant past in photographs of gold mining ventures, cattle herding and other cowboy doings taped up carefully on the long mirror behind the bar.

            The coot had tucked the treasure map away, hearing no offers, and was sucking down his last whiskey, swaying back and forth to the point of falling, yet avoiding that by skillful juggling of his center of gravity, and Handsfree swayed a little too in sympathetic copy as he rose from the scarred knotty pine table and lifted up his sample case.  He was humming some EgypÐtian tune about the fruits of labor and was the second one to reach the door. When he stepped out, he was standÐing on a sideÐwalk in Courbet , Arizona , across the border from the Sonoran desert and Mexico . It was April, nineteÐen-forty-nine, just days from his twenty-third birthday, and he had only recently arrived from New York City .

            To make a long story short, he thought, rehearsing it again: the papyrus and these essences.  My father has a small atelier and is an EgypÐtologist. He has mastered the ancient Pharaonic skills. Here is the figure of Hatshepsut, Sobek, the crocodile god. Here's Isis and the figure of Ramses. This is the sweet essence of nefer. Women like it. I can get you a cartouche with her name in hieroglyphs upon it.     

            But the truth was his father had been a Christian and was now dead, his mother too, both killed in a Cairo crowd by Islamic funÐdamentalists. And there were papyrus factories, those for the distillation of the essences as well. For the tourist trade, though the painting was accurate in its reproduction of the ancient models, which were themselves reproductions, executed then on pain of severe punishment. Making a short story long, he thought.

            The rain beat on his brim. Leaves blew at the gutters in the windy street, and across the way he saw the shadow of the cowboy heading for the glass booth, which then became a bright obelisk, his figure in dry oasis talking on the phone. "Last chance." It was the mumble of the old coot behind him, the syncopated click of metal studs on wet paveÐment as he moved away. The wealthy looking man was down the sidewalk in the distance now. He'd raised a wealthy looking umbrella and was pushing it into the wind driven rain.  He rounded a corner and was gone, and Tut Handsfree tucked his sample case under his thin raincoat and set out after him.

            He'd sold the Flower of Sakkara to the freckle faced student with the red hair, a second small bottle, a blend called Arabian Night, as well, and the artist himself had come to watch their negotiÐations at a table off in a corner at the bar. He was a tall, older man with a thin face and a quizzical look. He spoke English with a French accent, though he spoke very little, and when Handsfree had displayed the papyruses for his viewing, he had laughed lightly, but not derisively. It was clear he underÐstood the process and the value, and his few pointed questions and comments, even his quiet laughter, seemed celebratory. He was interested in issues of originality and reproducability, in the relation between art and comÐmerce. He spoke of the painted figures and mechanical drawing, of photographic copies. Handsfree noted that his male companion, left alone at their table, seemed himself a reproduction. He had seen many like him, thin and furtive, yet beautiful, in the darker districts of Cairo. He looked very much like the artist himself, almost a copy, one of the other at least. He sat very still at the table, in profile, as if awaiting some power of animaÐtion.

            In the end the artist purchased but one papyrus, but at a good price. It depictÐed a painted scene from one of the nobles' tombs, SenÐnufer's, the 18th-Dynasty mayor of Thebes, who was also the chief vintner to Amenophis II, or so the story went. The mayor stood facing his wife, their arms reachÐing out to one another, but probably not touching, or if so only tentatively. The wife was dressed elaborÐately, possibly in her bridal costume, and the mayor himself was decked out in similar finery and looked very much like his wife. The wall behind them was like a shop window, painted with hieroglÐyphs that seemed, strangely, pharÐmaceutiÐcal. Handsfree presented the artist with some others, but he seemed to have no interÐest in pharaohs or gods.

            The dark and narrow streets of squat, adobe houses ended quite abruptly at the edge of town, whereupon Handsfree felt his feet in earth instead of on concrete and his pants' legs pierced by shadowy crucifixion thorn and junco needles as he followed the ascendÐing figure ahead.

            The man now held his closed umbrella in his fist. The rain had lessened to a misty drizzle, and when he reached the low hill's top, he disappeared down over it without hesitaÐtion, and Hand-sfree quickened his step, until he too had reached the incline's crest, where he paused to catch his breath and for a survey of what lay displayed below.

            He was standing on a butte overlooking a small meadow, near the center of which a marshy, oval pond shimmered dimly in the light of an invisible moon among yellow and blue wild flowers and green grasses. He could see a rickety wooden bridge at the far side of the pond and beyond that the shadowed volumes of a few burnished hay ricks tucked against a stand of tall and hazy beech trees at the meadow's end. Off in the distance, through the high terminal branches of the last trees, he saw, however vagueÐly, a row of stone houses, Victorian in style, a rigidly exacting row, as if a city street had been laid down there, isolated in naÐture's abundance, its peaked roofs standing senÐtinel against encroachÐment, and at the far end of those houses and behind them, rising higher than they, a cross at the steeple tip of a church on what might be another street, or road, the two byways forming their own cross as they intersected one another. And there were other stone houses, three or four, above the meadow to his right, each isolated from the others by a few acres of land.           

            It was possible that near this place there lived the old woman who was known for potions and treatments that were curaÐtives for male maladies, those prostatic as well as venereal. She was also good with desert skin diseases, psoriasis and various city rashes too, or so Tut Handsfree had heard, word of her skills reaching him, though always in a veiled and guarded language, even though he had been in residence in Courbet for only a short time, and as he stepped from the butte and down the pathway that moved through creosote-bushes and agave, heading for the meadow's brink and that more benign flora, odd in this part of the country, eastern, or from some other continent entirely, he spied the artist and his male companion, recognizing something in the shoulders of the former and how the other stood beside him in a similar posture.

            They were at a far distance, but it was clearly them, and they seemed to be searching out a number on one of the isolated stone houses. They stood in the light of a half-moon that had appeared as the dark clouds rushed by, heading south, dragging the wind and rain into Mexico. It might be the house where the old woman lived, or at least HandsÐfree thought it might be, and it seemed very odd that they should be searching there, so late at night. But the wealthy looking man had crossed the footbridge at the far end of the pond now, gaining distance, and Handsfree looked away from that odd couple and quickened his step, his shoes sinking into spongy earth, damp grass wetting his cuffs, as he made his way down the straight and purposeful meadow trail the other had blazed for him. 

            When he reached the bridge, he found that the pond had swelled in the rain, its surface no more than inches below the rotted boards on which he stood. It was dappled only lightly now that the storm was passing. Smoke hovered at its shores, some humid and gaseous exchange in which green grasses seemed ilÐluminated from within, each spike a small sword touched with silver at its edges. Impressionistic, he thought, and this is like some Impressionist painting I am in, as if from another century, almost like that.            

            Standing on the bridge, he could see the wealthy looking man as he moved among the hay ricks, crossed through the field of knee high grasses beyond them, then entered in among the beech trees that defined the meadow's far edge. He was walking more upright now, striding out in fact. The two had come by circuitous route, and haltingly, the man ahead dipping into dark side-streets and alleyways, lost to vision for long moments, as if he were aware of being followed and was hesitant about revealing his destination, though he never once paused or at any time looked back, as far as Handsfree could determine. But now he seemed absolutely sure of himself, or beyond caring.

            Tarrying clouds crossed the moon, its light blinking in the interstices, and late storm gusts shook the high beech branches, sending a shower down into his cap brim. Then he was beyond the trees and at the meadow's far edge, where a path moved up a gentle rise toward that row of stone houses he had seen dimly through branches. There were other branches now, emory and blue oak stripped bare of their leaves, and he saw artificial light beyond them, a smudge of red, and to the right of it a second smudge, green, and he could hear something now too, the low rumble of an engine off in the disÐtance.

            The wealthy looking man had disappeared again, and HandsÐfree quickened his step, no longer urged on by the purpose of selling papyruses or nefer and jasmine, but moved by a pure curiosiÐty now, resolute and attentive, as he followed in the other's footstep through brambles and the last meadow grasses and into southern growth once again, iodine-bush and greasewood, until he had reached the crest and was standing among yucca a few feet from slabs of elevated concrete, that isolated block long city street and its broad sidewalk that fronting the row of identical Victorian stone buildings that he could see now were readymade imitations, preÐfabricated, what seemed the center of a town that had not been built, or was yet to be built, a shopping street, curtain covered windows of offices on the second floors, but plate glass at street level, a row of fancy shops, clothing, toiletries and appliances, dimmed electrical street lights, fashÐioned as gas lamps, in a well spaced and orderly line at the curb's edge.

            He stepped from brush into dirt, then climbed up onto the foot high sidewalk. The wealthy looking man was there again, but for a moment only, before he jumped down at the sidewalk's edge a block away, then turned off to the right, into a country lane, and disappeared behind the final building in the row, and HandsÐfree hurried to catch up, passing the shop windows that were ilÐluminated in lamp and moonlight, displays of attracÐtive clothing and thin mannequins sealed from the reach of desire behind glass over which his elongated shadow image drifted ahead, the squishÐing sounds of his sodden shoes fading away behind him.

            Then he saw the pickup truck at the corner, the myopic search of its greenish headlights bathing the narrow lane, and heard the rev of its engine as it started to move through the intersection. He was almost there himself, and as it passed he glimpsed the shadow figure of the cowboy in a rosy glow beyond the cab window. He was leaning forward over the wheel, gazing toward where the wealthy looking man had headed. Then the truck was gone and there was only the dim light of the fake gas lamps on the sidewalk, a shimmer here and there where it illuminated vague puddles of rain. He heard the deep, percussive sound of the firing then, two dull blasts, and the roar of the engine, and when he leaped down from the sidewalk and turned into the rough country road, he saw the man staggering in the distance, reaching out to the pole of a street lamp set in brush at the narrow lane's edge, missing it and falling heavily against it, then bouncing away and collapsing down into himself, finally coming to rest, his body half in the roadway, legs and feet near the lamp's base.

            Handsfree could see the red taillights off in the distance, the shadowy whipping of grasses that brushed against the truck's bed as it fishtailed in acceleration in the rutted lane, and once he had rushed to the man's side and had knelt down beside him, he saw the blood pumping from his neck. 

            He reached out to cover the fountain with his hand. The man's eyes were open and gazing up at him, and he saw his thin black musÐtache turn to a pen line of red above his moving lips as blood flowed from his nose. It was coming from his ears as well, then his eyes, and the pumping at his neck receded to a momentary gurgling before Handsfree could press down into it and staunch the flow.

            He felt a warm, sticky wetness at his knees, and when he looked from the man's bloody eyes to the hard packed dirt where he knelt, the ragged red circle was expanding, pink at the edges where it mingled with the not yet absorbed rain. He crawled back a few inches, but the expanding circle followed him. Then he was standing over the man, his sample case still pressed against his chest. He glanced to the right, saw the keystone archway above the chapel door, the hotel sign bolted in at the side, and the darkened lobby beyond, then reached down and pulled gently at the fine fabric of the man's lapel, folding it back and sliding his fingers into the slit of the inside pocket.  He could feel the leather of the wallet, the tip of a pen, and something else. It was a thin envelope, and for no good reason he pulled it free, and without looking at the inÐscripÐtions upon it, tucked it into his raincoat pocket. Then he rose from his bending, turned, and moved quickly along the lane. He was heading for the meadow and the footbridge that now seemed transition from one foreign place to another, but one of at least some comfort in familiarity, and he kept his eyes on his footÐsteps, looking for markers of his recent passage, evidence of that other, naive self, who had come this way only minutes before.


            When Tut Handsfree awoke the next day, he was thrilÐled once again in memory of the thrill he'd felt in slipping the note from the envelope he'd taken from the dead man's body only to discover that the words were hand written in the Arabic language. He'd translated: We can offer twenty, then fifteen percent. Another hand had scribbled in an equally brief question, but in English: And my bonus?  The envelope was adÐdressed to a single name only, Rashid, followed by a box number in Courbet. There was no return address, but the postmark was stamped Snowflake, a town in Arizona a good distance away.

            Handsfree rose and went down the hall to wash himself, then returned and dressed and made his pot of tea, and while sipping it, he wrote his own note: I found this in the lane. Might it have something to do with the murder?  Then he took his raincoat from the hanger in the small, open closet, closed and locked his door and made his way down the flight of stairs that led onto the street.

            He lived in a poor Mexican neighborÐhood, though a bustling one, and the street was vibrant with foot traffic and voices, those of children and the merÐchants standing before their food and clothÐing shops, calling out their wares. He went to the corner, his raincoat over his arm, and purchased the English language newspaper at the narrow vendedor de periodicos. 

            He'd addressed his envelope to the local police and had put the stolen letter and his note into it, and he dropped the envelope into a blue mailbox near where he was standing, the sun bright now in a clear sky. A cool breeze was blowing, and as he headed toward his buildÐing, he felt it ruffle his raincoat where it hung from his crooked arm. When he was back in his room, he made a fresh pot of tea, then sat at his small wooden table and opened the paper.

            There had been two murders. The wealthy looking man was listed, not as Rashid but as a John Doe. There had been nothing but money in his wallet, a good deal of it, and investigation had begun, that pointing toward drug trafficking and other clandesÐtine activity. The medical examiner reported that he had been killed instantÐly, but Handsfree knew that wasn't so.  He had said "kath" or "care," then something else a moment before his eyes flooded and he had died.

            Above the article announcing the second death, there was a hazy photograph of a man lying in a highway culvert at the desert edge. He seemed relaxed there, legs together, hands over his stomach, his face exposed to the morning sun, eyes closed against the glint, as if he were working at a tan. It was the old coot, that drunk who had waved the treasure map in the bar, and reading the article below the picture, Handsfree saw that he'd been called El Malabarista and that he had been a musician, a piano player and singer who had worked the bars across the border and some even in Courbet itself and north of there. He'd had some mild celebrity when he was younger, and even after he'd taken to drink had been a popular enterÐtainer. He was sixty-seven years old. But he'll get no older, Handsfree thought. Nothing of significance was found upon his body.

            That night Handsfree went to The Last Chance Saloon, as much out of curiosity as for his business. He went there early, just before seven, and there were very few patrons in residence. Two men sat at the bar and a trio of cowboys played cards at a table beside the dark jukebox. But the young girl with the red hair was there, along with her companion, and Handsfree went directly to their table, smiled at both of them and sat down, lowering his sample case to the floor beside his chair.

            "Did you read about the murders?" he asked.

            "We were there," the young man said, and Handsfree saw the freckles on the girl's face receding in her quick blush. She'd flushed in the giving of the information and in the memory.

            "They cut his throat," she said, her voice rising toward some cracking. "And they broke all of his fingers, on both hands!"

            "But, how?" he said.

            "It was near the dig," the young man answered. "We had gone to the roadside for a break, about nine this morning."

            "It was horrible!" the girl said.

            "But you mentioned 'they,'"

            "Generic," the young man said, and Handsfree caught the look of disapproval in the girl's face, something between them that went beyond his statement, a matter of a lack of sensitivity and style, or just simple inappropriateness.

            "It just seemed too cold for a personal thing," she said. "Too methodical. Did you see the way they placed him there, in the paper I mean?" 

            "I read that they had found nothing on him."

            "You mean the map," the young man said.

            "It wasn't there," the girl answered. "Nothing was. Only his cane."

            There was little else to speak of, and Handsfree mentioned the other murder, but neither made the connection to the wealthy looking man of the night before, and he changed the subject.

            "What about the artist?" he asked.

            "He left town," the girl answered. "I saw him at the bus station."

            She'd nodded to the side, her eyes glancing in that direcÐtion as she spoke, and Handsfree looked over that way and saw the artist's companion where he sat, very still again and in profile, off at a table near the window. There was still some light outside, that left by the recently setting sun, and the window was an opaque wall of glow behind him.

            He's an afterimage of the artist, Handsfree thought, like a fashioned memory left behind in a frieze.  He looks like Sennufer on the papyrus, that reproduction. But wouldn't the artist be his bride then, or the copy of one?  It's all in the clothing, he thought, and in the jewelry and the essences.  He'd noticed this before, both on the papyrus and in the original. He'd even noted it on the streets of Cairo, and he saw it now in the couple that sat at the table across from him.

            Her hair was red and she had freckles and was pale, and her companion had let the sun in, going hatless, and was as dark as  any Egyptian. Still, in the flush of murÐders and information, in their relationship, in early evening drinking, their faces held a similar expectation, a desire on the brink of some fulfillment.  And if her hair were a wig only, and if she had not worn a hat.

            He had to look away, back toward the window, but the artÐist's companion had disappeared, though he fancied his image was still there, behind the glass now, invioÐlate, longed for and permanent.