Our conversations begin innocently enough, with musings about the nuances of carburetors or the phantasmagorias of Chagall, the opening of abalone season, the late quartets of Beethoven. And then Charlie will take off his glasses. He'll hold them by one of the hinges, balanced between the thumb and index finger of his left hand. His eyes will go all vague and misty, as the eyes of the extremely myopic often do when their spectacles are removed. If our conversation were a movie, this is the point where the director would order gelatin to to be smeared on the camera lens. An amorous liaison is about to unfold.
"The luck of the Irish," he smiles at me. "She had a muscle strain in her lower back, so naturally I suggested a trip to the hot tubs to work the cricks out."
Charlie is a sterling specimen of that class of happy mortals who're always in love. Like most perpetually smitten romantics, he's never been married. Fate, often depicted as rather fickle, is actually more thoughtful than a champion chess player. Wedlock is, after all, an inconvenient state for those who find a new and perfect soulmate about every other week.
His latest leggy Lorelei hails from a town not far from the treacherous rocks where the legendary siren lured sailors to their doom. It's a gray, wintry place, and though the poor, chalky soil produces grapes of ravishing sweetness, Ingeborg was happy to leave it.
"I adore her accent. It makes English sound so clipped, so exotic, as though she's snapping buttons off your shirt with her teeth."
Charlie got a full dose of the adorable accent at the hot tubs, where he heard all about eels. If there was one dish Ingeborg absolutely loved, it was eels, juicy eels swimming in a lemony white-wine dill sauce. She acquired the taste from her father, who made bells for a living.
Not just any eels would do, not those saltwater eels shipped on ice from a faraway coast. Her father insisted on succulent freshwater eels, the kind that can be found squirming in the river not far from the Lorelei's perch. And he turned up his nose at all but the very best of these eels, the ones caught by the bridge. As any connoisseur of eels knows, the most delicious prefer places frequented by suicides. According to Ingeborg's father, this is the result of the universe being basically magnetic. Opposites attract. And your eel, you can twist him and thrash him, strangle him and skin him, pop him into the hot frying pan and he's still got the will to live, still got some kick left in him. The harder they die, the better they taste.
The Jacuzzi bubbled. Ingeborg babbled. Charlie dove beneath the turbulent water and began nibbling at her kneecap, slowly working his way up a milky white thigh.
During his dotage the emperor Hadrian imported a host of adepts in unusual practices in order to rally his flagging libido. Among his "spintriae," as these erotic artisans were called, Hadrian's favorites were his "minnows," young boys trained to perform subsurface fellatio on the goatish emperor while he paddled about a heated lagoon in his retreat on Capri. Many of the minnows were from the Greek island of Kalymnos, which is famous to this day for its sponge divers. Charlie, raised beside a much colder, less hospitable sea, has never had the opportunity to develop their sophisticated breathing techniques. Halfway to what he hoped would be Ingeborg's soft spot, he had to come up for air. Ingeborg was still babbling about eels.
Her father would bring the eels home as soon as he landed them, his mouth already watering. To peel the tough outer skin off, he'd tie them to the balcony railing with a string and cut a circle round what would be the neck, if eels had necks.
One spring afternoon when he was about to skin a particularly plump one, the string snapped and the eel slipped out of his grasp, slithered along the rain gutter and disappeared down a drainpipe. How it managed to stay inside was a mystery. He poured boiling water into the drainpipe to force it out, then dish soap to slick it up, even motor oil. He tried a plumber's snake. Still no eel appeared. He shrugged, and went off to drown his disappointment in a bottle of Riesling.
The next morning, just after daybreak, her father was awakened by a loud pop, like a champagne cork inexpertly pulled from a bottle. He carried his hangover to the window, set it on the sill, and looked out. Sure enough, the eel was in the grass beneath the drainpipe, wiggling for all it was worth.
Eel fried with onions is a dandy breakfast, and Ingeborg's father always claimed that the sneaky two-pounder with nine lives was the most impossibly scrumptious he'd ever eaten.
"It's true, Liebling," said Ingeborg. "The eels and the wine are what my father, rest in peace, most in life enjoyed."
Sensing a break in the eel saga, Charlie moved in for a kiss. The curious sucking motion Ingeborg made with her mouth while his tongue tangoed on her teeth was an unsettling surprise. It reminded him of goldfish snapping at colored food flakes floating on the surface of the water in an aquarium. And the moment their lips parted ways, Ingeborg resumed her monologue, as though nothing had happened.
"I don't know, Charlie," I say.
"Me neither. But I'm sort of hoping that for Germans, sex is as convoluted as one of their sentences. That the verb comes at the very end, after you wade through a whole mess of words."
"You going to see her again soon to find out?"
"I can't right now. She's gone back to Germany to turn her father around the right way."
Apparently there was a curious clause in the last will and testament of Ingeborg's father. It called for a huge eelfest upon his demise. It also stipulated that any bottle of pedigreed, vintage wine in his cellar the mourners couldn't empty on the day of his funeral should be dumped into the river. He even specified the bridge as the spot for the sacrifice, if it should prove to be necessary. His frugal fellow burghers naturally did their best to prevent a single liter of wine being poured over the railing where the town's unhappiest or unluckiest inhabitants traditionally go to end their misery.
That was the problem. The townspeople did only too well at the eelfest. They were deep into their cups by the time the hour for his burial arrived. The sky was spitting, and the black clouds gathering on the horizon threatened worse to come. They laid him in the grave backwards, with the marble slab above his feet. When this fact was brought to their attention by a boy who'd noticed a crack in the coffin near the left ear and was sure they'd put the old guy in wrong, the mourners pretended not a word could be heard above the tolling of the town's bells, most of which had been cast by Ingeborg's father.
Wonderful bells they were, each with a unique voice soprano bells and alto bells, tenor bells that would shatter chandeliers if banged too loudly, deep bass bells with a vibrato that could melt bones or knock a wrestler off his feet. Ingeborg's father had taught her that to make a bell correctly, it's necessary to remember that each one should ask a different question, in a different color. Some bells are meant to ask banging, dark blue questions that pick the bones of the sky clean, others tinkly little pink questions. The most difficult to craft are bells that ask white questions. These bells have to perform a trick with sound which is the opposite of what prisms do with light. They have to take all the sounds, all the colors, and twist them back into one clean white ribbon of tone.
Few of the townspeople could've followed the bellmaker's theory. Even fewer showed any desire to do things correctly. It was rainy and cold. They were soused, and impatient to return to their carousing. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, ass-end-to, they covered him with damp, clingy earth and hurried back down the mucky lanes to finish off his fine wines and the eels.
"I don't know, Charlie," I repeat.
"Yeah," he sighs, tilting his chair back, "you could be right. Maybe she's not really the perfect perfect soulmate. Our syntaxes might be a mismatch. Even if she does call me Liebling, and it sounds sweet as marzipan when she says it."
A second later an impish grin spreads across his face.
"She did mention that we Yanks don't know squat about bells. Our most famous one is cracked. It's on the back of the half-dollar coin, isn't it, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia?"