She was not quite eleven when I let Harald Engstrom pour me that glass of brandy, so that made her what? Thirty-five, thirty-six in November.
That was now. But back then she’d been a little golden-haired child waiting for… well, not her father and not her uncle, because we’d never entirely defined our roles. Her father figure, anyway. The guy who made a home for her, and put food on the table, and tucked her in at night. That was the guy she’d have been waiting for, and the son of a bitch never turned up.
So what happened to her?
Best-case scenario, I thought, some friend of mine took her in. A couple of times when I’d had to travel I left her with Kitty Bazerian, and maybe she’d called Kitty when I failed to reappear, and maybe Kitty gave her a home. Or maybe she wound up in an orphanage, or in a foster home, or on her own somewhere in the city.
Impossible to guess what had become of her, and each guess was more disturbing than the last. I quickened my pace and tried to concentrate on the changes in the neighborhood. Better to focus on the superficial, I decided. The important stuff was too unsettling.
My house was still there.
No one had knocked it down, I saw. Nor had it collapsed of its own accord, although I suppose it was a quarter of a century closer to doing so. But it looked the same as ever from the outside. Built sometime in the late nineteenth century, it had achieved a state of decrepitude by the time I moved in that it had been able to maintain without apparent effort ever since.
I went into the vestibule and checked the double row of buzzers. About a third of the slots lacked names – tenements generally house a few folks with a passion for anonymity – and the names I saw were not the names that had been there the last time I looked. What had become of E. GOLDSTEIN and M. VELASQUEZ and MARKOV FAMILY? And who were T.D. SHIRRA and PATEL and R. BESOYAN?
And then I saw a name I recognized. 5-D – E.TANNER.Oh?
My front-door key didn’t fit the lock. No surprise there, not after so much time. Even a lethargic landlord changes the locks every few years. I used to be able to slip the old one with a credit card, but this one seemed to be made of sterner stuff. I rang a couple of bells – Patel, for one, and someone named Gilbey – and somebody buzzed me in and I climbed four flights of stairs. That wasn’t any easier than it had ever been, but it wasn’t noticeably harder, either, and I suppose that was something to be thankful for.
My name was still on the bell. I pondered that fact as I climbed the stairs. I still lived here, but how could that be?
A doppelganger, I thought. A sixty-four-year-old Evan Tanner, padding around in a moth-eaten cardigan and carpet slippers, writing cranky letters to cranks all over the world, making coffee in my kitchen and sleeping in my bed. And what would happen if we crossed paths? Would one of us vanish in a puff of smoke? If so, which one would it be? Or would we cancel each other out like positive and negative charges, both simultaneously ceasing to exist?
I know it sounds far-fetched. But the whole day had been far-fetched from the moment I opened my eyes, and it wasn’t growing ever more plausible with the passage of time. It was only the persistent chill deep in my bones that let me believe I really had been in the deep freeze. If I could swallow that particular camel, why strain at a doppelganger?
I mounted the last step, walked the length of the hallway, and stood in front of my own door. The nameplate beside the doorbell held my name, but I didn’t ring the bell, nor did I knock on the door. I just stood there for a long moment, listening but not hearing anything, and then I tried my key in the lock, and it turned. I pushed the door open and walked on in.
It was still my apartment.
Oh, it was different. The walls had been painted – probably more than once – and there were different pictures hanging on them. Some of the furniture was new, but some of it was the same as it had been when I left it. And the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves which I’d installed in every room were there still, and I recognized my books on the shelves.
Could time have somehow stopped in here even as it had gone on outside? But it hadn’t stopped in here. There were new things – a matte black radio and record player, from the looks of it, and an entire carousel of what were evidently miniature records, smaller than 45s, and holding entire symphonies. And, on what had been my desk, there was some strange sort of television set all tricked out with a typewriter keyboard. There was a test pattern playing on the screen, winged toasters flying hither and yon to no discernible purpose.
I looked closer and tapped one of the typewriter keys to see what would happen. Incredibly, the popup toasters popped away, wings and all, and the screen brightened, with different rectangles of print and pictures appearing here and there on it. It couldn’t be an ordinary television set. It was something else, and I had evidently done something to it, and I hoped it wasn’t disastrous.
“Who’s there? Did someone come in?”
I looked up. A tall blond woman, quite beautiful and entirely elegant, had emerged from within the apartment. My doppelganger’s paramour? The son of a bitch had good taste, I had to give him that. Long golden hair, high cheekbones, a full-lipped mouth, a pointed but not severe chin. Full breasts, a trim waist, long legs. I wasn’t sure what she was doing here, but I was perfectly willing for her to keep on doing it.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I touched a key, and something happened to your toasters.”
“My toasters? Oh, the screen saver. That’s nothing.” She’d been looking at the screen, and now she looked at me. “My God,” she said. “It’s you. Evan, it’s really you!”
“It’s really me,” I agreed, mystified. But who the hell was she? She hadn’t been here when I left. She was the sort of thing I’d remember.
“Evan,” she said, “don’t you know me? Have I changed so much? Because you have hardly changed at all.”
But she didn’t say any of that in English. She said it in Lithuanian.
“Minna,” I said. “Minna, is it really you?”
“Of course it is,” she said. “Who else would it be? And it is really you, Evan. I thought you were dead. All these years, Evan, I thought you were dead.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m not.”
“I know that, Evan. And in my heart I always knew it. For years and years I waited for that door to open and for you to walk in. And then I stopped waiting, or at least I stopped thinking about it. And then the door opened. And then you walked in.”
“Good thing you didn’t change the lock.”
“Oh, Evan,” she said, and threw her arms around me.
It was very strange. She missed me, of course, after all those years. And I didn’t exactly miss her, because it seemed to me I’d last seen her just two days ago when we had breakfast together. If I missed anyone, it was the eleven-year-old girl I’d scrambled a couple of eggs for, and that little girl was gone, and this, this goddess had taken her place. I’d been a sort of father to that little girl, albeit an unorthodox one. I didn’t know what I was going to be to this grown woman, and I was a little leery of finding out.
“You kept the apartment,” I said. “How did you manage that?”
“I just paid the rent each month, Evan. I bought a money order at the post office, filled it out in your name, and sent it in.”
“How did you get the money?”
“There was some in the apartment. You showed me where you kept cash for emergencies.”
“That couldn’t have lasted very long.”
“And there was your check every month from the government.”
“My disability check, $112 a month.”
“They kept raising it over the years.”
“Cost-of-living increases, I think they called it. Anyway, it’s up to $428 now.”
“That’s a respectable sum,” I said. “Or at least it would have been back in 1972. But if the cost of living has increased proportionally, then I suppose it’s still a pittance.”
“It’s useful,” she said. “It’s gone up more than the rent has. It pays the rent now, as a matter of fact.”
“I had to cash your checks,” she said, “or they would know you were dead, and then I would lose the apartment. Besides, I couldn’t believe you were dead. If you were dead I would know, I would feel something here inside me. But if you were alive, surely you would not stay away for so many years. Evan, where were you? What happened to you?”
I went over to the bookcase. “There used to be a bottle of scotch here,” I said, “but I suppose it’s long gone.”
“There’s liquor in the kitchen. Scotch? Or would you like some brandy?”
“Not brandy,” I said with a shudder. “Scotch will be fine.”
“You stay here,” she said. “I’ll get it.”
She came back with two glasses. I was about to ask her just when she started drinking whisky when two things occurred to me. One – it was none of my business what she did, and two – she was seventeen years past the legal drinking age. (I later found out they raised the drinking age to twenty-one while I was chilling out in Union City. She was really only fourteen years past it.)
“Little Minna,” I said, taking a glass. “Did you live here alone all the time?”
“Except when I was married.”
I almost dropped my drink. “You were married?”
“For two years, and we lived together for a year before that. At his apartment, in the East Village. But I kept this place, Evan, and when the marriage broke up I moved back.”
“You were divorced? What happened?”
“Things just didn’t work out.”
I took a long drink of scotch. I wondered how it would sit after all those years, but it went down just fine. I felt the glow spreading in my body, rich and warm. But the warmth didn’t seem to be reaching the bone-deep chill.
“Did they make you go to school, Minna?”
She shook her head. “I stayed home,” she said, “and I read the books, and I think I learned more that way than I would have learned in school. And of course I had jobs, because the monthly check wasn’t enough to live on.”
“What kind of jobs could you get?”
“In the neighborhood. Helping out in the shops, delivering for the liquor store, working at the newsstand when the Sunday Times comes out.”
“Assembling the sections.”
“That’s right. I was always available to work, because I didn’t have to go to school.”
“Handy,” I said.
“Yes. And then when I was seventeen I look tests and got my general equivalency diploma so that I could go to college.”
“You went to college?”
“At Columbia. I took some tests, and I guess my scores were good, because they gave me a scholarship. I majored in history, and then I got a master’s in comparative linguistics, and then went back to history for my doctorate.”
“You’re a doctor,” I said.