By Ben Greenman
To the door of my modest country home in the placid British town of S., there arrived a package — a nondescript box of the sort favored by department stores, catalog houses, shops that line the main streets of S., and, in short, all business who concern themselves with the sale and delivery of goods. In the box was scattered a load of styrofoam peanuts–or rather, I thought that they were styrofoam, and did not consider until later the possibility that they might have been those starch packing peanuts that dissolve in water and can therefore be eaten in large quantities as a means of shocking friends and acquaintances, such as Larry King. In addition, there was a blue bottle that, while not large, was not small either. Also, while not ornate, it was not plain. It had no label, even when I turned it around. I searched through the foam peanuts for a card or a packing-slip, but found none. I called upstairs to my lady friend, whose name eluded me at that moment, to see if she could find any information as to the package’s origin, but she was not in the house. She had, since earlier in the day, been outside with the gardener, huddled in counsel over the fate of the peonies. Then I grew bored, and placing the bottle on top of the dresser by the front door, went upstairs to the bedroom, where I fell into a deep sleep that parted midway to admit a dream of intensely aerobic carnal congress with a certain starlet of the forties whose films, I am sorry to say, were far inferior to her physical charms.
During the night the bottle fell but did not break. My lady friend — by then I had remembered her name, which was Taluuwa — did not join me in my bedroom, but rather slept in her own, and my sleep was rich and rewarding. Coming down the next morning for my customary breakfast of eggs and loaves of bread, I noticed the bottle on its side on the floor, where it had rolled after its plunge from the dresser. I called for Taluuwa again, and this time she answered, but only to tell me that she was just about to go outside and continue working with the gardener, not on the peonies any longer but on the particularly knotty problem of a potted palm. To my ears, her voice carried, in addition to its usual seductive cast, a tinge of impatience. Ever since I brought her here from the island of Ponape in the Eastern Caroline Islands, she has often been short-tempered with me, sometimes inappropriately. I took a nap during breakfast, and another one just after breakfast, and then I picked the bottle up and replaced it on the dresser.
When I awoke from my after-breakfast nap, it was because the gardener, a little man who favored large sweaters, had entered the house. I thought that he was Jewish, although I had never known a Jewish gardener. I thought this only because when I asked him if he would like to join me in a brandy, he declined. Jews aren’t big drinkers. Also, once about six months previous, I was typing up a letter to the New York Times that discussed the wonderful tendency of the Jew to engage in spirited verbal banter, and the gardener wandered by my desk and fixed me with a look of what I took to be silent disapproval, I assumed ironically. That day, the gardener picked up the bottle, then went upstairs to Taluuwa’s bedroom. When he emerged again, he had in his hands what he wished me to think was the same bottle, but what I saw upon closer inspection was an entirely different bottle, narrower at the top, wider at the bottom, and of a hue that tended more toward periwinkle than toward cobalt. He placed it on the dresser and went outside to settle the matter of the palm. As soon as he was outside, I smashed this impostor-bottle into a thousand pieces, then ate some old lasagna I found hiding in the back of the refrigerator.
My intent after eating the lasagna was to march right into Taluuwa’s bedroom and look for the original bottle, after which I would return it to the dresser where it belonged. But while I was still wiping the last drabs of tomato sauce from my neck, I suffered a dizzy spell that swiftly did away with any thought of ascending the stairs. My dizzies, as Taluuwa likes to call them, began about ten years ago as infrequent nuisances. Today, they are so common that I cannot often distinguish them from their absence. When they come upon me, my mind melts into a muddle. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, a film I consider to be my greatest accomplishment, I wrote much of my own dialogue, including the film’s greatest line of dialogue, which also happens to be the greatest line of dialogue ever spoken in the history of cinema: “I have seen the devil in my microscope, and I have chained him.” When Val Kilmer heard me speak that line for the first time, he fell to his knees. David Thewlis told me later that he thought that Val had simply tripped over one of the man-beast costumes, but I refuse to listen to jealous chatter. Were I to remake that film, and it is entirely possible that I might, I would rewrite the greatest line of dialogue ever spoken in the history of cinema to make it even greater. “I have seen the devil in my mind,” I would say, “and I have claimed him.” Let Thewlis tell me that any man who falls to his knees in the wake of that line is merely tripping over a half-lion’s-head, half-man’s-head mask!
But my dizzy spell has distracted the course of my tale. After dashing the blue bottle to pieces, I thought that I was done with the saga of the mysterious vessel. I could not have been more wrong. When I broke it, I noticed a slight smell of sulfur, but did not think anything of it. But when I was eating the wienerschnitzel, which followed the lasagna, I was overpowered by another smell, that of roses. I thought for certain that the scent was somehow connected to the gardener, but neither he nor Taluuwa were anywhere to be found. And when I undertook to locate the source of the perfume, I traced it to the spatter of blue glass. I stood over the remnants of the bottle, and then it came to me: the contents of the bottle, first sulfurous and then with the aroma of roses, were the contents of my soul, which had been regrettably demonic when I was a young ruffian but had blossomed into floral enlightenment late in life. Before my eyes, as if responding to my spark of inner vision, the pieces began to reassemble themselves into a whole bottle, and not just any bottle but the very same bottle that I had received in the mail, the very same bottle that the Jewish gardener had spirited upstairs. I quaked with fear. My knees clapped against one another. I almost dropped the fudgsicle that I clutched with my right hand.
I have not always been receptive to the supernatural. When I first arrived in New York City to study acting, I was, as I have said, willful and reckless, and hardly heeded the laws of man, let alone those of the heavens. But with age, I have learned to read my surroundings for traces of the divine — not just tea leaves and crop circles, but less well-known sources of augury, like the bottom of a rapidly ingested gallon tub of vanilla ice cream. This particular tub, to which I fled after the bottle’s resurrection, had a faint yellow streak that brought to mind butter, which in turn brought to mind joy. Suddenly, I felt a stabbing pain in the lower left quadrant of my belly. I palpated there but could find nothing. It seared for a few excruciating seconds, then went as quickly as it had come, leaving behind a newly minted relief. I walked into the living room, where the wicker rocker in the corner beckoned me. I fell into its embrace, and then into the outstretched arms of sleep. The starlet who had visited my dream the night before was there again, this time sitting by herself on a red sofa, investigating herself in a manner that has not been shown on the silver screen since the days before the Hays Code. Flushing with embarrassment and pleasure both, feeling my age, I knelt at her feet, knees creaking loudly, and prayed for her to save me.