When he arrived in Budapest, Brenneman spent the afternoon walking around the museum district, scowling at the diners spooning up goulash in the sidewalk cafés. He didn’t doubt he could get a meal the equal of any of what they served at these popular, overpriced restaurants for half the cost at a café in a different part of town. The opulence of the diners irritated him, and he resented the ease with which they spent their money.
That morning, walking through a crowded, trapezoidal square with a weathered copper statue of some revolutionary in the center of it, he’d drawn up short, struck by the sight of a woman sitting on one of the benches. She had the sly-looking features he’d come to associate with Magyar women, a pointed nose, doughy arms, and plump red cheeks, as though she’d already settled into the sort of existence that would slowly encase her in fat. As if she recognized him, her face lit up, and she made a gesture. He maintained his course, walking directly toward her, touching himself on the chest as she rose. However, just as Brenneman approached her, a man shoved past, scowling over his shoulder and pronouncing something in his harsh, guttural tongue. The girl embraced him, hardly throwing Brenneman a second glance.
Now, Brenneman found himself wandering through one of the poorer quarters of the city. In abandoned lots next to derelict buildings, children played soccer. Groups of young men sat on doorsteps, eyeing Brenneman as he walked past. One crooked street wound into another, as here, the geometry he’d come to expect from the rest of the city disappeared. Soot stained the facades of the buildings, while garage doors opened onto massive courtyards. Inside the courtyards, people stood or sat in windows from which curtains billowed, and Brenneman found himself tantalized by the glimpse each window offered onto another life. Before he knew what he was doing, he’d traversed the quarter, and he found himself walking up a diagonal thoroughfare near the edge of the old city. While cars rushed past, he waited to cross the street next to a market with barred windows. He turned in what he thought was the direction of his hotel only to find himself penetrating further into the unfamiliar cityscape. Sometime later, without knowing how he’d ended up there, he found himself standing in front of the entrance to the massive subway station down the street from his hotel, and he turned north, along a side street that would shortly take him back to where he was staying. Just as he turned the corner, a man accosted him, grasping Brenneman by the arm. “I know you,” the man said in heavily accented English, and he grinned at Brenneman, extending an index finger, as though he’d correctly guessed the answer on a quiz show, and now he expected some kind of prize. “Paul,” he said, and he laughed.
All around, shadows were beginning to lengthen in the arcades, while late afternoon drinkers congregated in front of the bars. Disco music blared from a restaurant, giving the arcade the feel of a cheap nightclub. As Brenneman started to shove past the old man, the idea took shape, at first as something of a joke. What harm could there possibly be in having the old man on? Besides which, Brenneman hardly seemed to be meeting anyone, and he didn’t reckon his chances were going to be much better tonight. He looked at the wisps of gray hair on the crown of the old man’s head. At the far end of the arcade, a pair of couples laughed at a table in front of one of the more expensive restaurants on the street. Despite the heat, they wore leather jackets, and he could see a gold watch on one of the men’s wrists.
“Of course it’s me,” Brenneman said, clapping the old man on the back. He looked up and down the street, as if someone—the real Paul, perhaps—might catch him at this deception. “Who else did you expect, old man?”
Snowed over by cataracts, the pupils of the old man’s eyes were nearly the same milky shade as the whites, and he wore a blue shirt of the same pale shade as his irises. At his “recognition” of Brenneman, he seemed pleased. “I knew it was you,” he said slyly, putting his hands on his hips. “I figured it was only a matter of time.” He wagged a finger at Brenneman.
“Tell me, how long have I been gone?” Brenneman said, leaning conspiratorially toward the other.
The old man didn’t answer. He blinked at Brenneman, who stood only a foot away from him, thrusting his face into the old man’s as though he were daring him to recognize his mistake.
“We were all worried, your father especially, on account of Eleanor.” The old man waved his hand dismissively. “Well, these things happen. Most likely, everyone will let bygones be bygones. Have you seen your father?”
At the prospect of a father and some kind of girlfriend, Brenneman might have laughed. He could only hope his father was rich. Or the girlfriend came with some kind of dowager. And that they were both blind, too.
“I haven’t spoken to anybody,” he replied, and he shook his head, peering intently at the old man’s wasted eyes.
“You’ll have to find your father immediately,” the old man scolded him. “And you’ll have to find Eleanor, too.” He bit his lip.
“Of course,” Brenneman said, warming to the game. “Just tell me where to find them, and I’ll go see them right now.”
Yet at this sudden display of enthusiasm on Brenneman’s part, the old man seemed to reconsider. “It wasn’t very nice, what you did when you ran off like that,” he said, and he examined Brenneman’s face, as though having “recognized” Brenneman, he now wondered who this person he’d recognized was.
“Oh, they won’t mind,” Brenneman said, and he mimicked the old man’s dismissive gesture of a moment ago. “We’ll let bygones be bygones, right?”
The old man looked at him, puffing out his lower lip and furrowing his brow, scowling. He seemed to be entertaining some dark thoughts about this Paul, which was to say, about Brenneman, whose enthusiasm for the role remained undiminished. Perhaps without seeing the father, he might be able to get his hands on some money. Perhaps this Eleanor would be young, pretty—and above all, rich.
Suddenly the day, which had been conspiring against him, seemed to be turning entirely to his advantage.
“Actually, I think you might wait before you go see Eleanor,” the old man informed him flatly. “In fact, I think you might wait before you go see your father, too.”
Observing the old man’s expression, Brenneman began to feel ill at ease. Who was this Paul character, and what had he done? As a breeze blew through the arcade, cooling the sweat on the back of Brenneman’s neck, he studied the old man more closely.
“I don’t know about Eleanor, but I can’t imagine my own father wouldn’t want to see me,” Brenneman said sourly.
The old man waved his arms, stomping his foot in front of Brenneman. “You just about bankrupted the man!”
At that, Brenneman’s heart sank. Whoever Paul was, he’d evidently cleaned out the father. As many times as Brenneman had borrowed money from his family over the years, he’d always endeavored to pay it back, and he’d certainly never bankrupted anybody. Besides which, now, Paul’s father was no use to him.
“Well, I’m sure Eleanor will see me, if my father won’t.”
The old man scoffed.
“You’d be lucky Eleanor didn’t have you dragged off by her brothers and beaten. Your father might forgive you easily enough, but you can’t play games with someone’s heart, least of all when she’s Eleanor’s age and trying to eke out a living on a schoolteacher’s salary!”
So he’d bankrupted his father and left some spinster in the lurch. Well, there were worse things, weren’t there? Besides which, who was to say they didn’t have it coming, the father and the schoolmarm both? Lord only knew what Paul had suffered at both their hands…
No, Brenneman didn’t feel as though he could defend Paul at all.
“Don’t think there wasn’t talk,” the old man glowered at him, becoming too indignant for Brenneman’s taste, and he leaned in closely, wearing a dark look. “It’s one thing to break a woman’s heart, but if you’re going to sully her reputation, that’s the kind of damage you can’t undo.”
“Now, look here—“ Brenneman started.
“You can’t tell me you didn’t think word was going to get around,” the old man hissed.
“I always told her I’d come back,” Brenneman cried.
“And here you are, three months later, and everyone knows full well what you borrowed that money from your father for, and what you did to my daughter. And now I’m here to collect.”
Something flashed in the old man’s hand. As befit a person of his small stature, the knife seemed miniature, and it trembled in his hand. Brenneman looked frantically up and down the arcade. Licking his lips, he looked back at the blade. As yet, no one seemed to have noticed the confrontation that had developed between these two men.
The old man stood before him, the blade trembling in his hand. He leveled a look of pure hatred at Brenneman before he made one half-hearted feint, which Brenneman dodged easily, taking another step back and preparing himself to parry. As Brenneman felt for the wall behind him and made ready to disarm the old man, the hand holding the knife abruptly fell to the old man’s side, and the old man covered his face with his other hand, kneading his temples, as though he were about to weep.
During the scuffle, a pair of glasses had fallen from the old man’s shirt pocket. As Brenneman leaned against the wall with his heart hammering, the old man shook his head, and he bent to pick them up. He held the cheap plastic frames. Would he be even angrier once he realized Brenneman’s ruse? Brenneman felt himself overcome with sympathy for the old man. After all, Paul seemed to have done his daughter a bad turn—and now here was Brenneman, making him out to be a fool.
The old man thought about putting his glasses on. Then he tucked them back into his shirt pocket. He looked apologetically at Brenneman. The knife hung in a loose grip at his side.
For a moment, Brenneman thought about ending the charade, but then it occurred to him that doing so would only add to the old man’s humiliation. In fact, he wondered if the old man wouldn’t stab him out of spite, and well he might deserve it. And yet how could he settle the debt he owed the old man? Nothing he did now could repay the old man’s pain or humiliation—or, for that matter, his daughter’s.
“Go on,” Brenneman said, taking a step toward the other. He grasped the hand that held the knife and made as if to drive the blade into his belly, at which the old man recoiled, pulling away furiously. “I’m in your debt,” Brenneman breathed heavily, reaching again for the knife, which again, the other kept away from him, sputtering at Brenneman as he dodged across the arcade. Brenneman intuited he was punishing himself for the deception he’d practiced upon the old man, and as he held the front of his shirt up, slapping himself on the stomach, he felt there was nothing he would have preferred to the old man driving the blade between his ribs, twisting it until it hit some vital organ, and leaving Brenneman to bleed his life out on the cobblestones here in this unfamiliar city.
At Brenneman’s admission of guilt, the old man seemed to come back to himself. He folded the knife—it was a pocket knife, hardly sharp enough to break the skin—and tucked it back into his pocket. “Look here,” he said magnanimously, “I understand how it is. I was young once, too.” He thumbed himself on the chest. Then he withdrew from his pocket a battered, grimy change purse, a tiny cloth satchel, presenting it to Brenneman.
“Take it.” The old man pressed it urgently into Brenneman’s palm. “My daughter said you left this before you disappeared. She said there was something of great value to both of you in there. Go find her. She should be home by this time of the afternoon.”
When Brenneman squeezed the sides of the change purse, and the mouth opened, next to the pair of grimy coins inside, he could see something that resembled a chain, perhaps a locket, though he could tell by looking if it had value, it was sentimental value, only. He snapped the mouth shut. Brenneman held the object tentatively, by two fingers, caked as it was with the other man’s—Paul’s—sweat.
He looked up and down the street, for in fact, he had no idea which direction to go. The old man nodded enthusiastically, and Brenneman took his leave without another word, walking briskly up the arcade in the direction of the fountain. When he looked over his shoulder, he found the old man staring after him, waving him on, and he walked more quickly. At the tables along the arcade, the diners sipped cocktails in the waning heat, and Brenneman found himself repulsed by their clothing, their money.
As soon as he’d turned the corner and was out of sight of the old man, he dropped the change purse, letting it fall from between his fingers and into the gutter. He’d gone 20 paces when he heard a voice, and he turned to find a waiter running after him, holding the purse between his fingers.
“You dropped this, sir?”
Like everyone else in this accursed city, the waiter seemed to speak perfect English. A sheen of sweat shone on his neck.
“It’s not mine,” Brenneman said truthfully.
At that, the waiter became indignant.
“I just now saw you drop it,” he said, his face flushed from chasing Brenneman.
“I don’t want it,” Brenneman said.
“Well, you can’t just throw it in the street,” the waited huffed, thrusting the object at him.
Scowling, Brenneman took the purse from between the other’s fingers, not bothering to thank him. At the end of the block, he deposited it in a trash can, and he turned the corner and walked back to his hotel.