Senior lictor Cicero Galbus was staring dumbly at a bungle of old and new police reports, stacked on his desk, unsure where to begin. Damn all this bureaucracy, he thought angrily. He was an officer of the law and not a deskman! How often he heard the citizens’ complains that the police force of Rome, even though it consisted of only two parts - lictors and praetorians - was an unnecessary complex organization. ‘Ah! All these lictors! A drain on our taxes! Bureaucrats! Stupid cops!’
Well, he was a cop, but so what? Of course, the lictors busied themselves mainly with such mundane matters as guarding the major street fares, arresting drunks and dealing with petty criminals, whereas Praetorians rode a high horse and meddled only with politics.
I bet THEY never bother with paperwork, snotty bastards, - he mumbled under his breath, squinting at a page of the newest report and then giving a loud sigh. Damn it all! Not again! A pair of suspicious foreigners who entered the City this morning ended up locked in a cell of his lictorat. Damn politics! At least, they could count themselves lucky that they did not end up with those Praetorian guys, mused Galbus.
According to the officer on duty, a young girl and an old man entered the city with a bunch of traveling acrobats. Having parted company with the troupe, they began to draw the honest people’s attention in the main street. Even though they were dressed as beggars, their manners and speech exposed them as pretenders. Cops had been summoned. The pair was arrested. Now it was Galbus’ job to establish their identities and to find out what they were planning to do in Rome.
It was nearly the lunchtime, when the senior lictor asked his second in command to step into his office.
- Well, those two beggars you guys brought in this morning…- He began, shuffling the paperwork across his desk.
- Yes, sir?
- Do you recon we’ be better deal with them now or after lunch? Do you think that they are they really spies? ‘Cause if they are, we won’t wrap it up in a hurry and I feel like taking a break now.
- It’s up to you, boss. Personally, I think this pair is a weird couple but they don’t look like spies to me. Too noticeable… Better give them some more time to stew in the cell and then we’ll have a talk with them. Naturally, sir, it is just a suggestion so…
- Yeah, you’re right, as always. Let’s go grab something to eat and then we’ll see…
An hour and a half later, the senior lictor was back at his desk, picking his teeth with remnants of a broken stelos when two guards brought in the office the suspects. They looked weird all right but they behaved with a reasonable docility.
- Well, well, well… Come closer, you two! Just for your information, I am the senior lictor on duty, Cicero Galbus, and I never joke! – barked the senior Cicero Galbus, boring at his prisoners and trying to sound fierce.
- What is your name, old man?
The male member of the pair, an old bald stick of a man with watery eyes, turned red in a face and replied angrily:
- Why, dear sir, pray tell us first what crime did we commit?
- Shut up and answer my question! I am the one who’s asking questions ‘roun here! Is that clear?
- Why, I merely…
- Your name, dammit! – roared Cicero Galbus.
- Eh, Proculus, a gallant sir and…
- Hey, you better stop talking funny, d’you hear, old man? You think I’m joking?
- Very good, eh…sir.
- Huh! Your profession!
- I beg your pardon?
- Are you really that dumb or what? I said, tell me your profession! Are you a beggar or what?
- Why, but… As a matter of fact I am a professor and…
- You what?
- A professor…
- You prof? Hah! Stop bullshitting me, man!
- Why, I merely…
- Are you a pedagogue?
- Well, yes.
- And your name is…
- All right. Which household do you belong to then?
- I … Well… As a matter of fact, I do not belong to any household. I am a free man and…
- You are a free man? And you are skulking around dressed like this, without any identifications and stuff? I am warning you for the last time, old man, stop lying to me, do you hear?
- Shut up! I know the likes of you well enough! A runaway pedagogue, huh? Do you know what we do with guys like you then, huh? Clever, are we, huh? Too much of education, huh? And who are you, girl?
- I am…
- Stop blabber, you whore!
- My name is Zenaya.
- And what kind of name is that?
- I…hmm… that’s just my name…
- A foreign whore and a runaway pedagogue… What a team!
- But I assure you, sir, that neither of us is a slave! – Cried out the old man in growing exasperation, - Zenaya is my student and I…
- You what? Getting kinda slow in feeding me new lies, huh?
- But I assure you…
- Oh stop parroting this ‘I assure you’ for Gods’ sake. You two speak with a funny accent. What country are you both from and what brought you to Rome?
- We are…We are from Athens, - The old man said.
- Oh really? – Cicero Galbus broke into a laugh.
- Do you think it would be so easy to fool me? My wife’s grandma was from Athens, if you must know, you old fool! I know those folks better than the back of my hand! I know how they look like and how they speak! Don’t you try these tricks with me man, or you will be flogged.
- But why do you think… As if we had committed some crime, really! What about the presumption of innocence? I know the Roman law, you know! – Squeaked the old man indignantly.
- Do you? So you are really a prof, then? Wise even in the Roman law, huh? Well, well, well… Lemme see…
Cicero Galbus pushed to himself another file and began to read it aloud.
- Let’s see here… A runaway slave… A pedagogue by profession… Born in Dalmatia… Named Proculus… Ran away from his master two weeks ago… So it’s you then, huh? Your new master wasn’t to your liking or what?
Proculus opened his mouth but failed to reply. Cicero Galbus nodded, opened yet another file and continued to read.
- And what about this beautiful lady of the night here, huh? Name…Aha… Here’s a whole damn collection of names, all fake, apparently… But the description is matching perfectly… A prostitute… Served in a temple of Cybele… Ran away a week and a half ago… Whereabouts are currently unknown. Aha! May masquerade herself as a student. Well, my good people, what can you say?
The pair stared back at him speechless.
- But… we are not even from here, - Finally piped Zenaya, turning bright red, - We’ve never been to Rome before! This is a mistake. You have mistaken us for someone else.
- Oh really? Did I now? Well, well, well. It is easy to find out the truth, you know. I assume you two have no documents on you, am I correct?
The old man shook his head solemnly.
- So here you are, - Cicero Galbus grinned mirthlessly, - No documents, no identifications, nothing. Now I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. You, granddad, will be escorted to your master. I suppose he must know how his runaway teacher looks like. The same will be done to the young lady here. I’ll tell my guys to bring temple people over here and let them sort it out. Perhaps, and it is only perhaps, I am wrong, mind you. But I am never wrong. Somebody told me you two might be foreign spies but personally, I don’t think you’re spies unless you’re very good actors. My personal believe is that you are a pair of fools therefore, I will let your masters deal with you. Gaspian!
One of the guards stepped smartly into the office.
- Take these clowns back to the cell and then come back for instructions, - Said Cicero Galbus.
- But how can that be? – Whined the old man, - You even refuse to listen to our side of story! What kind of law enforcement is this? Where’s the evidence?
- We’ll find plenty of evidence soon enough, old man. Now, Gaspian, take them away.
Gaspian saluted, grabbed both prisoners and dragged them out of the office. Cicero Galbus sighed heavily and checked his sand clock. He had three more hours to go until the end of his shift yet he already felt tired.
* * * *
Judging by the sorry state of the prison cell, the lictorat chronically suffered from the lack of funds. Bunks and bucket were nowhere in sight. Perhaps, they had been banned as outright luxury. The walls were almost black under layers and layers of humorous graffiti. The only objects that seemed relatively new around here were the guard’s own breastplate and a bungle of fresh straw, thrown in a corner.
Once prisoners were safely deposited behind the bars, they collapsed on the floor and began whispering.
- Oh my gosh, Professor! What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?
- Tsh! Silly girl! Didn’t I urge you to speak properly?
- So what? It didn’t help us any!
- Well, we’ve certainly done our best, under the circumstances.
- Oh please, Professor! How will we get out of here?
- Hmm… An interesting question, indeed. I think, at the present moment our chances of escape are approximately nil.
- Then what are we to do?
- Let’s think logically. What follows from the man’s words, we shall soon be transported to our respective masters, so to speak, although I am positively at loss, how such a coincidence as similarity in names and so on, could have occurred.
- Ow! Ow! Ow! You must be joking! Are we gonna be handed over to complete strangers? That’s exactly what that horrid guy upstairs said, actually. What if somebody would want to rape me?
- I wouldn’t worry about that, my dear. Haven’t you noticed what the policeman said? You will be deposited to a temple of Cybele and not to a private household. No man is allowed to enter that temple. Well, hmm… Except the priestesses of Cybele are under the obligation to sleep with the animals, come to think of it.
- But I am sure you wouldn’t be required to participate in any such rites. I am sure it requires some religious training, which you are most certainly lacking. As to me… Well…
- I understand they wanna turn you into a private teacher. That’s not a big deal.
- A pedagogue is not exactly a private teacher, my girl! What did you do during my lectures back in the last semester?
- In any case, I am confident that this horrendous, this highly ridiculous situation would be resolved in no time at all. After all, this so-called master of mine has never bought me in the first place. Hah! We have never met! I am sure he must know how this runaway pedagogue of his looks like. Now, what we must remember is that we have a serious task still lying ahead of us. Besides, it occurs to me that this might be a unique opportunity for a practical lesson for us both. Never, never turn down an opportunity to learn, my girl.
- A heck of a lesson! What if they would really make me sleep with some poor animal?
- Put your mind at ease, for God’s sake. I am positively sure…
- You’re always sure, even though we are getting into troubles every time…
- Tsh! Someone is coming!
They looked up and saw one of the guards, peering at them through the metal bars.
- You people! What kinda language are you speaking?
- Umg… We are…
- Fucking spies, that’s who you are! Fucking foreigners! Always up to no good, the moment you arrive into town! Hey you, old man. Your master is coming to fetch you in half an hour so you’d better be prepared.
- Excuse me, sir? What about me then? – asked Zenaya in a teary voice.
- How do I know? The boss sent a man over to them people at Cybele temple. Someone should be here soon too, not to worry!
An hour later both prisoners were once again brought into Cicero’s office but this time, there were a few other people present as well. One of them, a grim looking man, dressed in a heavy senatorial toga, was sitting opposite Cicero Galbus on a cushioned chair and droning something in an angry voice. As soon as he saw Proculus, he stopped talking, jumped up and shouted:
- Ah! Here you are, the old bastard. What kind of game do you think you are playing with me?
- So sir, is this really your pedagogue then? - asked Cicero, shifting his eyes from one man to another.
- But of course he is! – Barked senator.
- But we’ve never met! How can I possibly be your pedagogue if we’ve never met! – Gasped Proculus.
- What? What are you mumbling about?
- Excuse me but if you truly bought me as you claim, then you must know me by my face.
- Why the hell should I? My secretary bought you a month ago. I’ve never seen you in person.
- What?! May I see your secretary then?
- You may receive fifty lashes for your insolence, old man. And it would be only the beginning!
- But this is a sad mistake. There must be some proof! Please, just a few words with your secretary. He’ll know I am a wrong man.
- No can do, friend. Just for your information, my secretary, the previous one that’s it, the one who bought you, was crucified for embezzlement a few days ago. I do not even know where the hell his soul is now nor do I care. And, talking about mistakes, stop your cheap tricks or you won’t survive your punishment. I know how my pedagogue looks like.
- Exactly like you.
- Oh God!
- Ok, shut up and behave now. I – Gallus Asinius – am not a cruel man but you better not fool with me, hear? And you, Cicero Galbus… - Gallus Asinius turned to Cicero and patted him on a shoulder, - I personally thank you for finding this scoundrel so swiftly. Good job, man!
- Why, thank you, Senator, sir. We are always happy to recover lost or runaway property, - Saluted Cicero.
Gaulus Asinius clicked his fingers. Two huge thugs appeared. They took hold of Proculus and ignoring the old man’s protests, dragged him out of the office. Their master followed close behind.
- And now you, my girl, - Smiled Cicero sweetly, turning to his second prisoner.
At this moment, Zenaya noticed two stern looking women, whose sobering exteriors had been partially blocked by the senator’s frame. They stood by the opposite wall and watched Zenaya with the cold intensity of two predators.
- Yes, I think that is her, - One of the women said, pressing her lips together, - That’s her indeed.
- A runaway from the temple, correct? – said Cicero.
- That’s it, officer. That’s her! Thank you!
- No! – Zenaya yelled, - It is a mistake!
- Here we go again, - Sighed Cicero tiredly.
- There is no mistake! I remember your crazy outfit only too well, girl. Stop yelling and follow us at once! – One of the women commanded.
- So you think I belong to… to .. the temple only because I am wearing this homespun folk dress, right? But I purchased it only yesterday and… there are hundreds of outfits like this one and…
- That’s enough! – The woman clapped her hands. The office filled up with a bunch of short but apparently muscular women. They seized Zenaya and towed her out of the door.
Once the clamor, yelps and angry shouts died away Cicero Galbus mopped his head with a filthy handkerchief and growled ‘Oh Gods, what a day!’
* * * *
Cumulus was quietly wondering how much more perspiration his body was able to produce. He was in the middle of his third workday, which meant that he was not fired yet. On the other hand, ‘Mamma’s famous hot pot’ - a vile fast food joint that decided to employ him for some reason, wasn’t by any means a place of meditation and leisure.
-Don’t rush! Don’t rush! Stay where you are!
Cumulus froze with one leg raised into the air and stared questioningly at the restaurant manager.
-One, two, three… Now go! Go, boy! Go!
Lunch hour with its meager list of ‘specials’ was nearly over but there was a backlog of unpaid bills and undelivered change at the counter. Luckily, no one had tried to leave without paying today so the manager continued to orchestrate the movement of his staff without annoying interruptions. In the meantime, the main room was full of the usual bustle, cries and general nervous activity.
- Waiter! Waiter! I’d like to pay please! Hey, wai…
- Damn you people! I will be late for my appointment. Where’s my f…
- Excise me sir, is there any chance I might be able to get the bill in this millennium?
- Boy! Boy! Over here! Hey!
-Hoi! Cumulus! Is that you, man?
Cumulus skidded across the floor, bumped into the table and glanced over his shoulder.
- How’s your new job, pal? I juss decided to pop in for a moment, to check on how you doin’- Said Cletius, burrowing his way through a crowd like a thick worm through dirt and finally approaching Cumulus and patting his shoulder.
- Oh well, I am OK, I guess.
- You look like you’ve been to races mate, even though you’ve got only two legs on ya instead of normal four. Is that red-faced bastard over there drives you like a cheap slave then? I see him glaring at ya out from the kitchen door right now.
- It’s our manager.
- So I see. Well, I guess I might get a taste of this famous Mamma’s hot pot of his then, whatever that is, while I am loitering here.
- Are you not fighting today?
- Nah! Tomorrow is a big day but today I am free. By the way, I was meaning to invite you to the show tomorrow. I’m in it.
- Oh, really? I don’t know if I’ll be free tomorrow. And how much would it cost? The ticket, I mean?
- Nothing for you, pal. I’ll let you through myself.
- Where’s that?
- At the Coliseum, of course!
- Yeah, wow is right!
- Cumulus! Cumulus! Would you mind to step over here please? – Rang the sonorous voice of the manager. Cumulus mumbled ‘Just a moment’ and began to spring towards the kitchen.
- I’ll be here, at this table! – boomed Cletius.
- All right. I’ll be back.
- Don’t you know it is forbidden to talk to customers? – Hissed the manager, once Cumulus froze in front of him, waiting for instructions.
- Sorry sir. He is just a friend.
- Your shift is not over yet!
- I am sorry, sir.
- All right. Get moving! Bring the bill over to the table number fifteen.
- Yes, sir.
The descended after-lunch silence was not unlike the lull after a particularly vicious military attack. Slightly shell-shocked Cumulus scanned the dining room dazedly and moved towards his friend. Cletius was sitting at a solitary table, picking something unidentifiably brown from a chipped earthen pot and sending it without a second look into his mouth.
- And so how’s cat…cat-terin’ industry?’ – He grinned.
- It’s all right, - Sighed Cumulus.
- Hey! How come they do not serve alcohol in this place? Can you figure this out?
- It’s suppose to be a family restaurant, you know. Children…
- Well, seems to me all these folks sitting here are too old to be the children. Anyway… You’ve got a second to talk?
- Just for a second, yeah.
- Listen, pal. You’ve told me you’re looking for your own place to live, right?
- Yes. I can’t afford to stay in the hostel any longer.
- I understand. I am moving together with one of my old pals from Brindisium circus, you know. Met the guy only this morning. But you… Let me see… Where the hell that ad has gone to? – Cletius rummaged in his pockets, grumbled ‘Ah! Here it is!’ and handed Cumulus a piece of parchment. It looked like some kind of an ad indeed.
- See? It’s called ‘couch surfing.’ Ever heard of one of those? – Cletius said.
- Mmmm… Sounds familiar but…
- Ah! Are you still having this, how they call it? Am…Am…Amnensia?
- Anyway, here it is. People let you stay at their place, free of charge, mind! Just some like-minded, friendly folks, see? So why don’t you check it out? Here’s the address of their headquarters.
- Hey, thanks.
- Go and check it out right this evening, why don’t you?
- Maybe I will.
- The hell you will. Just go and do it! Want me to come along?
- I’ll be all right.
- Up to you, man.
- Hey, thanks Cletius! I guess I have to go now.
- All right. See you tomorrow then.
- Only if I’ll get my day off.
- All right. But just in case you’ll be free, come straight to the Coliseum, aroun’ two. The main entrance. I’ll be there. Hey, tomorrow is Saturday! You’re not working tomorrow, are you?
- Like I said, I do not know yet. I mean… If I’ll get my day off and…
- Good then. See you there. Come and watch, hear?
* * * *
Cumulus checked the restaurant clock then glanced at the address on the ad one more time. The day was almost over and it felt exceedingly good.
-Going out tonight? – A huge line cook named Heracles winked at him and placed an enormous pot on a kitchen table with a thunderous bang.
-Fucking job, this. It is killing me and no mistake. Got to have a fuck this very evening or I won’t exist anymore, at least as a cook, - He added.
-Sure. That’s why some restaurants have catering worker’s unions, - Broke in an old, withered dishwasher whose name Cumulus still couldn’t recall, - The manager is a regular slave driver.
- Why of course! He used to be a real slave driver, part time though, some time ago. That’s why they hired him as the manager, - Replied Heracles seriously.
- Oh, yeah? So you know everything about everyone, right? –The dishwasher snapped angrily.
-Well, no. But this I know.
- But you seem not to know about the role of workers’ unions, the way you treat the whole scheme every time I try to bring it up to your attention, you donkey! – Fumed the dishwasher.
-What do you mean by that? - Heracles glanced at his opponent, clearly perplexed.
- Why, this is what keeps us working class people together! Keeps oppressors at bay, don’t you know that?
-Ah! Your lame-ass ideas again! Let’s get the hell otta here or I’ll explode!
Cumulus stared at the broad back of Heracles as the man strode towards the exit and thought, ‘I seem to remember more and more and yet…everything is still so vague…and so disturbing…Would this craziness ever, ever end?’ He took off his apron and followed Heracles out of the restaurant.
The headquarters of the couch surfing association was located near so-called ‘fun’ district. Cletius loved to prattle about this or that ‘friendly lupanarium with a great atmosphere and homely girls with great boobs’ that he supposedly stumbled across ‘juss this very evening’ but Cumulus had never tried any of these institutions. He was now passing through an alley, completely lined up with the establishments that advertised ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ Soon he noticed plenty of alternative places that catered to those who apparently preferred ‘Boys! Boys! Boys!’ Judging by the clientele swarming near the entrances, they attracted more intelligent but distinctly mature, fatherly types.
Once some ageing witch barred his way and asked Cumulus if he rather favored ‘ripe fruit’ over ‘those green, sour apples’. When slightly baffled Cumulus asked her what kind of fruit did she mean the witch cackled and told him it was a medicinal fruit, with which she practiced holistic approach to men’s health.
Cumulus shook his head and continued on his way past street urchins, beggars and street musicians until he spotted the right building, located the entrance and walked in.
The first person he saw was a scrawny young man with an enormously long nose and a mop of tangled hair, sitting in a cramped room among overturned chairs and empty wine jugs. The young man peered at Cumulus shortsightedly and asked him how he could help.
- I am looking for the coach surfing association, - explained Cumulus, stepping forward and scrutinizing the man under close quarters. The first coach surfer, if he indeed was the one, seemed to be suffering from a bad cold. He spoke in a nasal voice and constantly wiped his nose on a sleeve of his garb. Overall, he looked like a university student, a bit far gone with completing his last school assignment.
- Are you a member of the association? – asked the man shyly.
- No, but I am interested in joining it.
- I see. Great! We always welcome new members, you see. Right at the moment, we are nearly fifty men strong. In fact, we are going to have a meeting today. Well, I came first and you came too so…I think the rest of the group will be here shortly. Why don’t you take a seat?
Cumulus barely lowered himself onto a chair when the door flew open and a bunch of laughing and swearing people came. A few of them carried wine jugs. They eyed Cumulus with a polite curiosity. Someone cried,
- Looks like this guy is not from here. Hey, buddy! Are you looking for us?
- Yes, - said Cumulus.
- Welcome to the couch surfing association then!
- Are you a tourist, by any chance?
- Not really…
- Well, never mind. Care for a drink? This jerk over here,- The one, who spoke to Cumulus first, nodded toward the ailing young man, - I bet he didn’t tell you that we’re having a party tonight. Anyway, what’s your name, friend?
- I am Cumulus.
- Huh! The name sounds weird but what is not weird in this weird world of ours. Are you new to Rome then?
- That’s right.
- I see. By the way, my name is Nikodimos. As you might guess, I am a genuine Greek and it is a wonder why I am hanging around with this barbarian lot.
The last sentence produces a lot of sniggering but it didn’t put Nikodimos off. In fact, he looked like a chronically merry guy, who saw his purpose in life to be a ceaseless talker. He looked about thirty, perhaps a bit less, with a slightly bloated face of an amateurish drunkard. He had a beer gut and a large head, covered with remnants of hair.
- You’ll like it, man, this couch surfing of ours. I guarantee you that.
- I’m sure I will, - mumbled Cumulus, slightly overwhelmed by Nikodimos’s enthusiasm.
- See? We’re a good and friendly lot. By the way, we even wanted to organize villa surfing but you know these posh bastards. No sense of fun or hospitality… Anyway… If you are looking for a place to stay overnight, or maybe a few nights, I am your man. You can stay at my place as long as you want, and it is free of charge, man. And you know why? Because I can see right away you’re a decent guy and I’ll be glad to help. On the other hand, we hate these bloodsuckers from the hospitality business. They charge you exorbitant prices for some inferior lodgings, which, besides, all look alike. And do you have a chance to see the real life of Rome? Can you taste the real life of Rome? Make new friends? Hell, no man! But we are going to change all that! So, do you need a place to stay or not? You said you’re not from here. Where are you staying right now?
Cumulus named his hostel. Nikodimos made a sour face and shook his head.
- Better come over to my place, man, - he said, - No need for you to waste your money on lodgings like that.
- Well, thank you. I appreciate it.
- So that’s it, then. After the party you are coming with me, then.
- All right, but I would need to pick up my travel bag from the hostel first.
- Ah! We’ll pop in together and pick up your belongings, then we’ll go to my place, OK?
- Great. Thanks.
- My pleasure, man. Let’s have another drink then.
The party continued for a few hours. People drifted across the room or simply sat in small groups and talked. At some point during the evening, a tiny guy sat next to Cumulus and began telling him how he came to Rome four months ago.
- And I’ve been staying here since then, man. Can you imagine? I haven’t spent a single dinarium on lodgings. All I do is surf on, man. A couple times, I was kicked out, but who cares? There are still plenty of couch surfing dudes in this city to accommodate me for another few months.
Cumulus kept nodding or answered in monosyllables. Somebody was replenishing his wine glass so often that he began to sway in his chair and to laugh too often. Finally, the party broke up and Cumulus and his new friend headed outside.
* * * *
Nikodimos resided in a rather small but cozy apartment on the second floor of a huge tenement building. He ushered Cumulus in with a swiping gesture of general welcome and wiped out a jug of wine.
- Let’s have a night cup, man, - He said, smiling broadly.
- Th…thanks, - mumbled Cumulus, trying to bring into the focus his host’s face, shining with perspiration.
- These dorks at couch surfing association never bring good wine to the parties. I have nice stuff here. It’s genuine Falernian.
- Oh yeah? Gre…Great.
- Sure it’s great booze, man. Expensive though. Here, help yourself.
They had a drink after which Nikodimos continued on chatting, as if he was planning to do it all night.
- Say, Cumulus. Are you a spiritual person? I bet my boots that you are. I always can tell a spiritual person from a dumb slob.
- Spi…Spiritual? Yeah, man… Sure, Am spi (hick!) spiritual per(hick!)person.
- So! What did I tell you! I am a real believer myself. What I mean to say is that don’t take me wrong, man, I am not some kind of fanatic or sectarian freak, oh no man, nothing like that! But I believe. You know… Would you believe it, I’ve got tons of images of my deity around this place, man. It helps me enormously in life. And speaking of images… Why, man! It’s an art collection, no less! Hey, lemme show you a few pieces, all right?
Nikodimos sprang onto his feet and flew into the adjoining room. Cumulus nodded weakly while trying to switch his failing concentration to a delicate matter of retaining an upright position. He reached that particular level of drunkenness when one usually started to ponder on some philosophical question, such as ‘Why the hell did I get sooooo wasted?’ It was challenging to sit straight but it still seemed rude to fall on the floor and simply go to sleep.
- Hullo! Cumulus!
- Here you go. Look at this. Isn’t it awesome?
Cumulus forced his eyes open wide enough to disperse the mist that insisted on obscuring his field of vision and squinted at a couple of statues Nikodimos was holding in his hands. One of them represented a man with an enormous dick, and another was simply a dick without a man. Both statues looked rather realistic.
- Aren’t they beauties? – cooed Nikodimos.
- What…what’s that?
- Why? Don’t you know our protector, our inspirer, a Great and Mighty Priapus? Where are you from, man?
- Oh! Sorry… Priapus, yeah… Sure. Of course, I know…(hick!)
- I am His faithful devotee, man. Are you devoted to Him too?
- Well, not as such but…
- What? Don’t you realize, man, what you’re missing? Hey, I’ll help you there! I’ll help you to understand, man. Once you dig it, there’ll be no turning back, believe me! Wait!
He darted once again to the adjoining room. This time he stayed there much longer. Cumulus started to seriously contemplate falling on the floor after all, rude behavior, or not, when Nikodimos returned and cried,
-Well, what do you think?
Cumulus raised his head and stared hard at his host. Nikodimos had changed into something that looked like a feminine garb, constructed from some brightly colored, slightly transparent material. His face was heavily made up and, judging by the smell, his entire bulk was strongly perfumed. A dumb expression on Cumulus’ face began to turn into a mask of astonishment, then successively, into one of embarrassment. Meanwhile Nikodimos swirled around and giggled.
- Do you like my looks? A triffle too feminine for my taste, but it is chic now. I think they call it Unisex. You’ve got to live with the times although sometimes it is damn expensive. But I don’t care. Well?
- Nice, - burbled Cumulus, sounding unconvincing even to himself.
Nikodimos sat close to his guest, leaned forward and placed a hand on Cumulus’ knee.
- I can tell you one thing, my friend. You are badly in need of spiritual instruction. I, on my part, am only glad to help.
- I… Well, see… I am sorry but you see… I’m more like… straight, you know… although … well… nothing against people who… you know… but…
- Hey, hey, hey! Wait a minute here! What are you talking about, friend? What do you mean – straight? Am I not straight? I am straight. I am a believer. In this respect, I am as straight as a plank, man.
- Well, yeah but… What I meant to say is…
- Oh, come on, shy sissy! Let’s create some poetry! Let’s worship!
Cumulus opened his mouth but he didn’t have a chance to reply. Nikodimos shot his hand up Cumulus’ thigh and started to slide it under the hem of his garb. Cumulus jumped up from his chair.
- Hey, wait, wait, wait!
- What shall we wait for? – Nikodimos giggled and rose to his feet.
- I.. I need to use the facilities.
- I’ll be back.
Cumulus picked his bag from the floor, span around and rushed out of the apartment.
* * * *
The air was nicely warm, the street looked empty, and the night felt peaceful and unthreatening. In fact, it was so unthreatening that Cumulus, who had been propelling himself along the street or at least had tried to do so, stopped in the middle of pavement and stared at the night sky, trying to discern stars and constellations.
Ah! Too bad it is clo…cloudy… Wh…Where to n… now, huh? I’ve gotta to…, he mumbled, trying to recall the destination he had had in mind, Dam…(hick!) I hope Am notta ver… drunk…
Suddenly, he realized that he was indeed very drunk. He sighed and leaned against the wall. The pavement refused to remain stationary and rocked under his feet with a vigor of a living beast. He began to feel sick, closed his eyes and slid down. He heard laughter of some late nightwalkers but did not bother to look up. He sat on the ground and put his head on his knees.
‘A rest… juss’ for a moment… I’ll be on my way,’ – He mumbled again and fell into a slumber.
When he woke up it was already a late morning. He was stretched on the ground, fully dressed and physically intact but his bag was gone, and so were his money. Cumulus groaned and looked up. Something was lying on his chest. It looked like a piece of paper. He picked it up and scrutinized it through half-shut eyes. It was his mysterious parchment, that had been safely tucked into his bag just the previous evening. Apparently, the thief found it not worth taking but was graceful enough not to throw it away either. Cumulus sat up, fighting a monstrous headache and glanced at the last memento of his lost possessions. It still contained the rows of incomprehensible and funny looking letters. Cumulus sighed, folded the parchment several times and put it into his pocket. He was about to get up completely when a woman’s voice somewhere behind him said,
- Well, well, well. To get so wasted and to fell asleep right next to a gutter…Why, it spells nothing but a great confusion of one’s mind. Are you confused, young man? I bet my boots you are.
- Umgh… What?
Cumulus struggled onto his feet, peered over his shoulder and saw the entrance of a tiny shop. A lady, who was standing on the threshold, was looking straight at him with what could be classified as a ‘motherly’ smile. She looked like a mature, but well preserved woman, with an abundance of amulets and charms, drooping from her neck like a breastplate, and a heavily made-up face, painted in somber colors. Overall, she resembled a walking advertisement of exotic bijouterie with a gothic motif underneath. Cumulus blinked a few times and stepped closer. The lady patted him on a shoulder and said cheerfully,
- I guess in your age, young man, it is still OK to act naughty. Just wait till you get married. Hah! You want to come in? I’ve just opened up this hole. A long busy day ahead.
Cumulus nodded and followed the lady into the shop. He did it on a hangover autopilot without thinking why he was stepping into some shop. All he knew now was that his mouth was parched and every inch of his body was sore from sleeping on the hard flagstones.
- You wanna sit down? What’s your name? – The lady pushed a chair towards Cumulus and took another chair for herself. Besides two chairs and a round table, placed by the window, the shop seemed to contain preciously little furniture. The walls were decorated with colorful charts and more bijouterie and a few shelves that held rolled up parchments, books and dusty bottles. Cumulus surveyed his surroundings in a single glance and said,
- What do you mean? – The lady looked at him with a twinkle in her eyes.
- My name is Cumulus.
- Ah! That’s an exotic name. You’re not from these parts, I gather.
- You are a very peculiar young man, Cumulus. Do you know that?
- No. Why?
- I guess it’s your eyes. You look like you’re trying to recall something all the time. Were you that drunk?
- Yes. No. I am… Well… I don’t know.
- Hey, listen. Do you know who I am?
- Um… No.
- A fortune teller. OK? I always recognize an odd bird when I see one, OK? Where do you live, Cumulus?
- Nowhere. I… Well… I’d been staying in a hostel then… I’d been looking for a room but now I am kinda short on funds so I’ve no idea…I mean, my bag and all my money got stolen.
- And you arrived to Rome just a few days ago, am I correct?
- Hah! The old story! A provincial guy or a foreigner comes to Rome, finds himself a job, gets paid, gets drunk, gets robbed then gets fired from his job and then…
- Wait! What time is it? – Cumulus gulped a portion of stuffy air and sprang, or nearly sprang, onto his feet.
- Why? It’s half past ten. What’s the matter?
- My shift started at seven-thirty.
- Your shift? Where do you work?
- In a restaurant. I am a waiter. Well, thanks but I’ve got to go.
- Hah! What’s your hurry, man? I am sure you’ve been fired approximately a couple hours ago.
- How do you know?
- Believe me, I do.
- Thanks for everything but I really have to go now.
- Well, all right Cumulus. Go.
Cumulus barely made it half way towards the door when the fortuneteller lady seized him by an arm and whispered,
- If you need some help, or a room to stay, and I am sure you’ll need both, just come back, all right? I’m Mama Pro. I sit in my shop pretty much all day so you’ll find me here without problems. Just come back any time, do you hear?
- But why?
- Why what?
- Why do you want to help me?
- I think I’ve told you I collect odd birds, all right? Anyway, it’s OK! I am not running gray slave market here or anything of that kind so you should not worry on this account.
- Well, thanks. Maybe I’ll return.
- All right. Take care.
Cumulus darted out of the shop and hurried to the ‘Mama’s famous hot pot’. It took him less than twenty minutes to reach its doorsteps. It took him less than that to receive a notice of dismissal and his meager pay.
- And don’t ever think of coming back here, d’you hear? – The manager screeched, - I told you from the very beginning that we do not tolerate slackers!
Cumulus silently pocketed a handful of coins, turned around and walked back onto the street.
* * * *
Honest through and through, Mama Pro indeed had never dealt with the illegal slave market. She ran a boarding house. Her prospective lodgers were always offered a fair choice between private and common rooms. Upon settling into their new quarters, they automatically received a privilege to use the common kitchen (inside of the house) and toilet facilities (erected in the middle of the backyard). The fortuneteller’s shop, located on the ground floor, was also fully functional. It remained unsatisfactory unclear to her nosy neighbors how much money she managed to squeeze from both enterprises: despite her bohemian appearances, she had a reputation of a well-off woman.
- By the way, you may call me either Mama Pro or Proserpine, it does not matter to me, - Mama Pro said, unlocking the door of a vacant room and beckoning Cumulus to squeeze in. The room smelled strongly of mice and was frightfully dark but at least it contained a narrow bed and a three-legged stool, which seemed to be a sufficient furnishing arrangement, for there was no space for anything else.
- Is that your real name, Proserpine, I mean? – asked Cumulus.
- Of course not! Don’t you know who Proserpine was?
- Yes, I know.
- But it is a good nickname, especially for the business. In any case, I keep a few lodgers, I mean a few friends, in this house and they are all decent people so you shouldn’t worry about theft or anything.
- How did you know I was fired?
- Hah! I’ve told you. I know things! Besides, am I not a fortuneteller? Or you do think it is all bullshit?
- I don’t know. I’ve never met a fortune teller before. By the way, how much do you charge for your room?
- How much you’ve got?
Cumulus rummaged in his pocket and produced his pay.
- Looks like waitering is not a well-paid profession, - said Mama Pro, choosing several coins and dropping them somewhere within the province of her rich bosom.
- I guess you need another job now, unless of course you’ll be leaving Rome in a hurry, like some beaten up barbarian, - She said.
- Yes, I need a job.
- Accidentally, I’ve got an idea for you. Listen.
- One of my friends, not one of those who live in this house, but just a friend, anyway, he is looking for some kind of assistant. I think I can let him know that you are looking for job. He might consider you. He is looking for a smart, literate guy and I am sure you are a smart guy. Are you literate?
- Eh, yes. What does he do?
- Ah! Yes. Well, he is a private detective.
- A private detective?
- Yes. Why are you looking so startled?
- No, I am not startled. It’s just…
- It’s … an interesting profession.
- Well, I don’t know about that unless you think it’s interesting to poke your nose into somebody’s’ else business with a great possibility of getting your head bashed in a dark corner but yeah, I guess there’s a certain thrill in that. Anyway, make yourself comfortable and I’ll talk to him as soon as I see him. OK?
- Thank you, Proserpine. Thank you for everything.
- Oh! What a polite boy! All right, Cumulus, I’ve got to go and you behave yourself.
Read the other chapters
<--Previous 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Next-->