Chapter 6

“Shame on you!” she hissed. “Just shame!” as if he were a bad dog.

When stout old Ulysses Pope walked in, Holden, recognized him immediately, not only from having stood in a social circle with him at a reception several years earlier in Sarah Atwood’s party in Georgetown, but also from the many photos of the famous collector he had seen in rug magazines over the years. Holden sprang up from where he had been sitting at his roll-top desk and rushed to welcome the great man to his rug store.

“Sir! Mr. Pope! Glad you could make it! I mean, I’m happy you could come!”

The old Southern gentleman looked startled. “Were you expecting me?”

“No, no, I just mean that I’m glad to see you, sir. I wasn’t expecting you at all.”

The famous man frowned. “Did I come at a bad time?”

Holden blushed. “Good heavens, no. I just mean to say welcome to my store, such as it is.”

Pope looked around. “Is there something wrong with it? It’s damned small, of course. Is that what you mean?” He glanced at the curtained door at the rear of the shop. “God, I hope you don’t live back there.” Pope looked at him with an expression of distaste, as if he had just learned that Holden did things to children. Holden blushed, but before he could deny or affirm that he lived in the rear of his store, Pope asked, “What’s this?” He tottered over to the Turkish Kazak, the unusual rug Holden had bought at the flea market. But Holden had slipped into a kind of twilight zone and stood flat-footed, unable to respond. He was washed by a strange feeling that all of this was unreal. First, just days before, Avery Deane had showed up in his shop and had gone right to the same Kazak, and now the country’s most famous rug collector had walked in and was stroking its wool and turning a corner to examine its back. What was happening? And all of this after years of being the rug world’s best-kept secret.

“Mr. Pope,” he said rapturously, “you may not remember, sir, but we have met before.” Pope seemed uninterested. “Remember a reception in Washington, DC about three years ago? It was in connection with an exhibition at the National Carpet Museum. You and Charles Francis Green and Marley Highland and Kyle Berman were there. We talked about rug fakes, and Sarah Atwood introduced herself. I remember that you commented on her great beauty. My name is Holden Carter.” He wondered whether he should hold out his hand for a shake, but Pope made no response at all. It was as if Holden had not spoken.

But still, Holden was gratified when the collector asked him soon after, “What do you make this out to be?”

“Well,” Holden thought, “at least he’s asking my opinion about a rug. That’s something.” He remembered Deane saying to him about the same rug, ‘Call it majesty, call it Mohammad, call it wisdom, but don’t, for God’s sake, sell it for a piddling little five hundred dollars!’ Aloud he said, “My guess is it was made by Kurds near Kars, where Turkey, Iran and the Caucasus share a border. I’m calling it a Kurd Kazak or a Turkish Kazak or sometimes even a Kars Kazak. Last quarter of the 19th century.” If Pope had any thoughts, he kept them to himself and tottered around the shop looking at rugs on the walls. He looked old but no older than the last time Holden had seen him, though the man had to be in his mid-eighties. He could hardly believe that the man who was said to have the best private collection of rugs in the world was in his store and taking his rugs seriously. Pope made his way from one rug to the next like a bee buzzing from one flower to the other—and finally he returned to the Kurdish Kazak.

“How much do you want for this one?” Holden thought the question was academic because he couldn’t imagine Pope actually buying something from him.

“Oh it’s on the tag.” Actually, Holden was too embarrassed to say the price out loud. After Avery Deane had been in and had roared at him to raise his prices, Holden, feeling giddy for a day or two, had raised the price of the Kazak from $500 to $750. But Pope would not look at the price tag. Instead, he turned to look at Holden, and his expression said that he knew and Holden knew that the price tag had no bearing on anything and what, after all, was the real and actual price? For the first time it occurred to him that Pope might be interested in buying it. For some reason the thought embarrassed him. “Well, Mr. Pope, I would be happy to see it in your collection. It’s $500.” Pope stared at him and continued to stare at him and his eyes narrowed and his mouth turned down. Holden was so uncomfortable that he could hardly catch his breath. “Do you think that’s too much, Mr. Pope?” Pope held his gaze. “Uh, how about $400?” Holden asked. Pope nodded. The bargain was struck.

“Wrap it for me. I’ll take it and my man will send a check.” As Holden took the rug off the wall, he found that his hands were shaking. He had just sold a rug to Ulysses Pope. Or at least he hoped so.

“My man?” he wondered. “My man will send the check?”

“Do you drive, young man? Would you care to have lunch?”

“Well yes, I’d like to. Thank you Mr. Pope. I really love to drive. I could drive us both!” The old man looked at him. “I mean, where would you like to eat?”

“Wherever they make good cocktails.”

“Cocktails! Of course. Good cocktails.” The truth is that Holden was in the dark about cocktails. He knew restaurants that served good coffee and baked great pies, and he knew the places that had good imported beer, and he knew a little about wine. But cocktails? Also—something that he didn’t want to mention—he felt really strange closing his store in the middle of the day to go out for lunch. He always just ducked through the curtained door and whipped up a sandwich. He considered making up a sign to stick on his window: CLOSED FOR EMERGENCY. BACK AT 3. But wouldn’t it seem strange that, if it were an emergency, he would know when he would be back? Lying always confused him. So in the end he just locked up and he and Ulysses Pope got in Pope’s big rented Lincoln and Holden started the engine.

Suddenly he had an idea. “Uh, how do you like seafood, Mr. Pope?”

“Fine.”

“Well then, I know just the place. It’s at the marina. Uh, I forget the name right now. Great cocktails, though!”

“Fine.”

Holden drove the gigantic Lincoln with terrified care, so nervous that he could hardly see straight. On the city streets he had no feel in the big car for how close he was to other cars, and on a brief stretch of freeway he felt no connection with the road at all, and it seemed to him that the car might float right off the highway. Even now it was drifting to the right so that its tires set up a rapid bump-a-te, bump-a-te, bump-a-te sound as they shuddered over the lane markers. Pope didn’t seem to notice, though.

“How would you like to take me around, after lunch, young man?”

“Take you around, sir?” He struggled to pull the automobile back into his lane but over-corrected and was out of control for a full two or three seconds.

“Yes, take me around.”

“Well sure. Anything I can do for you. Like, you mean, take you around to…” Pope didn’t say. “Just here and there, huh? Sure, I’d be glad to.”

The minute they pushed open the big, glass door, Holden remembered something about the restaurant from the one time he had been there, a long time before. The waitresses wore little playboy bunny costumes—not like real bunnies with ears, but really, really short skirts and fishnet stockings and tops that were like dirndels, where the waitresses’ chests were pushed out or up or however that worked. And they had little white puff-ball tails. That’s why he thought of them as bunny costumes. “Ha ha!” he said to Pope. “Well, I guess there’s an Austrian theme here or something. We forgot to wear our lederhosen! Ha ha!” Mr. Pope slowly turned and looked at him for a moment and then began staring at the waitresses. He and Holden were showed to their table by a wonderful bunny whose long, thin neck and pronounced collar bones seemed not to go with her fleshy bosom. Once seated, Holden found a little green glass cup full of pretzel sticks and peanuts and other things that looked familiar, and he began nibbling them. He was surprised by how dim the light was, almost as if it were midnight.

Soon another bunny came to their table and asked if they would like to order drinks. Pope ordered a martini, exchanging a few words with the buxom young woman, like “over” and something about onions and vodka. The girl turned to Holden, who happened to know something about how to order a martini. “A martini please,” he said, “your house gin, dry, straight up.” He got the words out.

She was really quite pretty with her chest so white. “Oliver Twist?” she said to him and seemed to be expecting an answer.

Strangely, Holden had re-read the book just recently and had had a lot of thoughts about it, like how amazingly fresh it seemed. “Fresh” as in not-dated. So when the waitress said Oliver Twist to him as if it were a question, Holden had his second episode of deja vu that day. Suddenly, again, nothing seemed real: the waitress asking him about Charles Dickens, the midnight light at noon, his lunch companion, Ulysses Pope, the bunnies. So, really, he just shut down, as if all his nerves had gone on strike. Still, he was aware that the pretty girl remained standing by his side, waiting for him to say something or do something.

After some time, Pope, staring at him, asked, “Do you want an olive or a twist of lemon?”

As if from the edge of an epileptic seizure, Holden was recalled to life, called back to the here and now, strange as it was, and he said “Olive,” and suddenly all was well. And, ten minutes later, after he had been served his martini with an olive speared on a toothpick, and he had gulped down the olive and half his martini, things even seemed rather jolly to him. Here he was, sitting with the world’s most famous rug collector, entertaining him—and not only that, but Mr. Pope had asked Holden to “take him around.”

Pope was saying something about securities he had bought. “Don’t know if I trust the CEO. He may be a damned fool as far as I know. Let’s go over there and ask him point blank. ‘What the hell are your plans for this company?’” Holden thought that was perfectly reasonable. He and Pope would demand an answer.

“That’s what I’d do,” he said.

“Good. You can take me there tomorrow. And maybe you would like to help me with one other thing.” It seemed as if Pope’s martini had loosened his tongue, and, if Holden was seeing correctly in the dim light, Pope’s face had even become flushed. As Pope talked to Holden, he looked not at him but at the waitresses who bustled about the dining room. “As you know, I am president of the International Ali Babba Society which, of course, is a rug collector’s society. I would like to increase our membership here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I’d like you to call all your friends and customers who are collectors and bring them together in Berkeley on February 30th. I’ll give a talk about rugs. I’ll need a slide projector and a screen.” That said, Pope finished his martini and didn’t seem to expect an answer. The old man waved at a bunny for another martini.

Of course Holden was happy to help Pope with his Ali Babba meeting, though he foresaw an awful lot of hassle to pull this off. He declined a second martini, knowing he would have to return to work if he got through taking Mr. Pope “around.” Holden still could not shake the strangeness of sitting here with Ulysses Pope. In fact, looking at him closely—which he could do because Pope’s attention was riveted on the waitresses—he had an uncanny sensation that J. Edger Hoover was sitting across from him, or possibly even Herbert Hoover. After lunch, Pope called for a third martini, and as the waitress delivered the drink and then turned away, Holden watched, horrified, as Pope pinched her bottom. The waitress whirled about and glared furiously at Holden, evidently thinking it was the youth rather than the old man who had copped the pinch. “Shame on you!” she hissed. “Just shame!” as if he were a bad dog. Holden’s jaw dropped.

She stamped her foot once and then stomped away, never to return. Pope smiled. Neither he nor Holden said a word about the pinch. In fact, Pope seemed at ease saying nothing at all, even when the cashier, not the waitress, brought around the check and Holden said, “I’ll get it.” Having offered and hearing no counter offer, Holden had no choice but to follow through. He paid the bill.

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When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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