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It is a frigid February 5am, fit only for quilted oblivion, when Beth wakes up to a muffled crash from the next-door apartment. There’s a long pause, then the indistinct quacking of what sounds like a two-way radio. She registers concern, heavily delayed by the viscous tide of an interrupted dream. Beth is accustomed to disturbances in the early hours: her building is haunted by an antediluvian heating system which comes to life at dawn on winter mornings like a bull moose trapped in a bell tower. Each year, Beth trains herself to sleep through the thunderous anvil chorus of airlocks and anguished metallic expansions; this radio, however, is a novel alarm for which she has developed no neural blind spot.

Now, across the hall, the anatine voice falls silent. Minutes later a fire truck arrives with a flashing roar on the street outside and Beth stumbles out of bed to find a herd of firemen and a brace of EMS techs barreling up the stairs to Mr. Markovic’s adjacent apartment. The men arrive in swift high-def to Beth’s sleep-stained soft-focus, bringing in gusts of authority, bitter night air and efficient panic.

Later on - much later on - Beth will be struck by the comic cast to that awful night, resembling as it did the hastily-sketched scene setting for a porn film. (‘Sleepy girl in skimpy nightdress. Enter six unexplained firemen…’) The reality, however, is neither funny nor titillating. One of surplus crew glances through the goose-fleshed girl in the open doorway for just long enough to say no, she cannot ‘do anything’. Beth nods helplessly and closes her door again. From behind it, she hears a familiar patrician voice saying ‘yes, I am Paulo Markovic… I think I must have fallen… banged my head…’ The voice is lucid, feathery and fragile; the young boy’s name sounds misplaced on an old man’s tongue. It occurs to Beth that she never knew and never asked for ‘Paulo’.

Mr. Markovic - always ‘Mr. Markovic’ - was as enigmatic as he was eternally ageless. They’d met in the hallway shortly after she’d first moved in, when Beth was still at war with unfamiliar door keys, arcane parking rules and the thousand other tiny inconveniences that plague the recent émigré. Gallantly ignoring her physical and spiritual dishevelment, Mr. Markovic had greeted his new neighbor with the velvety aristocratic charm of a bygone era. Here among the high-arched windows, sweeping staircase and decaying parquet, such manners seemed entirely appropriate. ‘This place makes me feel like I’m living in post-war Vienna,’ he had confided, ‘so elegant, so tragically neglected. It is crumbling, my dear, into slow, rich dust around our ears.’ There was a Slavic tone at the edges of his eloquence and his black eyes twinkled. A cliché, yes, but Mr. Markovic could twinkle from his least expressive orifice: his whole demeanor twinkled - although only in the best possible taste, for there was nothing crude or gaudy in that lustrous old-world courtesy.

During their first meeting Mr. Markovic had invited her in for tea, embarking on a meticulous running commentary as to the correct brewing of Taiwanese oolong. Beth had paid scant attention, peering round at acres of bookshelves which genuflected under a riot of novels in Russian, English, French and (she later learned) Croatian. Mr. Markovic’s apartment, outwardly identical to her own, had developed a dozen extra internal dimensions, as impossibly book-filled rooms are apt to. ‘‘I used to teach,’ her host had murmured, following her gaze, with a slight, sad down-note that prevented her from asking - then or ever - why exactly he had stopped. These days, he added, he mostly translated poetry and penned polyglot critical essays. He lent her a slim volume of his own translations together with a collection of Rilke. Diligently, Beth read both, understood neither and had plenty of time to feel guilty about it since she didn’t see her neighbor for several months after that.

Come to think of it, it was fairly often that Mr. Markovic disappeared for weeks or months on end. Did he go back to Europe to rescue the moth-eaten manuscripts of obscure Croatian poets from bomb-damaged Dubrovnik attics? Or perhaps he indulged in snowbird winters of quiet, solitary gambling in second-rate Vegas casinos? Either theory sounded equally possible. Then, without explanation, he’d be suddenly ubiquitous again, asking her in for tea and soliciting opinions on Graham Greene, Margaret Atwood or Barack Obama. More than once, he had dictated that she must come immediately to the local bookstore where something important was happening… although the ‘important something’ would inevitably be obscured to the untrained eye by a dense assembly of poetic jowls and hound’s-tooth jackets – all of them expansively affectionate towards Mr. Markovic.

In time, Beth began to invite him to parties, whereupon her friends began to insist that she did so. Mr. Markovic brought champagne, regardless of occasion. Then he would perch on the couch, bird-boned and boyish, watching gleefully as other people drank it. He always looked entirely at ease holding gnomic court in a roomful of 20-somethings. Beth assumed at first that he was as gay as a cageful of courting canaries and reconsidered only slightly when he began to say, very seldom and always in the course of some unstoppable anecdote, ‘back when I was married…’
‘Married?’ Beth would ask… but by then he’d be off on another careening tangent: a tale, perhaps, of wrongful arrest in Istanbul. (‘Mistaken identity, of course. The consul was perfectly charming about it eventually.’) Nothing more was ever said of Mr. Markovic’s marriage. His apartment bore the stamp of a long and irreducible bachelorhood.








___________________

One Valentines Day, in the wake of an especially brutal breakup that had left Beth blank-eyed and awash with abyssal bleakness, Mr. Markovic pushed a note under her door.

‘Her life has come loose
like a sweater, wrongly washed.
Hangs shapeless on her.’

(Did the Croats have a little-known tradition of composing haikus?)
Outside on the doorstep was a paper parcel containing an olive-colored cashmere sweater: very low-cut, very clingy and very elegant. ‘You will come with me to hear poetry’, commanded her neighbor, ‘and you will be cheerful’.

That the barman at the Lizard Lounge would know and adore Mr. Markovic no longer seemed improbable to Beth. Dressed for a weekend’s shooting at an English country manor, he blended easily into the low-lit cellar among the skinny goths and loose-limbed rappers. His dapper Italian shoes tapped to the jazz and his axolotl head nodded solemnly to the angry civil-rights jams. When the slam concluded with a lush meditation on the female orgasm from a wild-haired Jamaican poet with the vocal heft of an opera star and the chest to match, Mr. Markovic burst into peals of delighted applause. Then he turned to Beth to say ‘I am sorry, my dear, I should have asked before I brought you - are you easily embarrassed? I suppose this wouldn’t do, for the very prudish…’








___________________

‘So when did it happen?’ Beth asks herself now, shivering under a quilt which has lost its capacity to warm her. When, amongst all this, did Mr. Markovic begin to look so obviously cancerous? Had he always been built like an emaciated mantis? Or was there some unnoticed point at which his body began to retreat from his skull as if caught in a high wind; at which his graceful asceticism tipped over into the frank ignominy of terminal illness? Who had been hired to install a modern panic button in that over-stuffed, out-dated apartment? And what about the cleaning girl who came in twice a week and to whom Mr. Markovic always referred with a faint air of lapsed-socialist embarrassment? Did she also bathe him? Wash soiled clothes as well as dirty dishes?

The door to Mr Markovic’s apartment will remain shut for a long time after that briefly fractured February morning. His mail will pile up in the rack downstairs and Beth will collect it in an agony of futility. She will ask around at the local bookstore, getting not a flicker of recognition. She will telephone the local hospitals. She will buy a tin of oolong tea that she cannot brew correctly and will never drink.



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Comments

The following comments are for "Mr Markovic"
by MobiusSoul

patrician voice
Very nice. Brings to my mind a certain friend, an Argentinean poet (among other things, he), now getting somewhat old, who has seen much and is amusing in his relating of it.

We may hope to be as fondly recalled.

Thank you for the story.

( Posted by: Flonigus [Member] On: March 3, 2009 )

Flonigus, many thanks
Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Your Argentinian poet-friend would I'm sure be happy to be brought to mind so affectionately. The character here isn't, as it happens, exactly a real person: just an assembly of traits culled from that odd, solitary species that is found in one-room apartments on the peripheries of academia. There are probably many Markovics tucked away in the bookish corners of the world, living out their mild eccentricities at oblique angles to the rest of human society.

( Posted by: MobiusSoul [Member] On: March 7, 2009 )





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