As modern relationships go, unspoken terms were spread across the table between Lester and Estelle, like cutlery, salt shakers and flower arrangements. As Lester was paying for the meal, Estelle was provided with the semblance of stability she needed to stave off the anxiety associated with her artistic temperament. She considered it a fair trade.
Although possessing an atypical disposition, Estelle came from practical stock, the witches living in thatched huts deep within the thick forests of Romania's Carpathians. Initially, in keeping with the wisdom of their custom, she claimed Lester to be her one and only; that their union was etched in the stars and transcended time itself. Lester loved all that, as men generally did, but the truth of the matter was more simple: Lester liked bacon and so did Estelle. She also liked Japanese samurai movies from the sixties, the black and white ones; Lester had one or two of those in his extensive "classics collection." That was about all they had in common.
More importantly, Lester begrudgingly allowed Estelle to quit her waitressing and do collage full time. Lester was lucky: Estelle was low maintenance as far as witches go from that region; most of them were described as "hard-assed bitches" who would batter their men, or even castrate them, devouring the genitals, at slightest provocation. Estelle kept her cool in this way until Lester decided to get greedy.
Estelle met Lester while waitressing in the bar he owned on the downtown strip. All the bars he had owned he called Lester's Place, not Lester's Place Two or, Lester's Place Three, as some owners did. Lester was impressed with Estelle's single mindedness, unlike the others in his employment. Without exception, after each shift, Estelle made a beeline home to collage until falling asleep. She had no interest in any kind of social life, contrary to her natural appearance, interpreted incorrectly by men with whom she interacted as wanton and seductive. As time went on, Estelle found herself spending more and more time at the bar than doing what needed to be done at home in the cut and paste department. She was well aware she had became more waitress than artist, an affliction suffered by many. Lester's offer had been luck or, "norocul" in her language, a concept she didn't really believe in but accepted. Despite good fortune, Estelle still understood Lester to be a knob.
"You have what's called a neurosis, Estelle. You could be pulling your hair out follicle by follicle, or biting your fingernails down to their nubbins until they bled, but instead you choose to glue little pieces of paper together. Something happened to you as a child. You won't tell me what that something was but someday I hope that you will."
A lot happened to Estelle during her childhood but nothing along the lines of what Lester imagined. And what happened in Estelle's childhood didn't matter to her. What mattered to her was the present and that she could sense a bend in the road ahead. And precisely because of that premonition, on that very morning of the stranger's appearance, Estelle made what sounded like a sympathetic remark to Lester. She rarely made sympathetic remarks after he had taken what he took. Lester was initially quite pleased, but ended up becoming irritated by what she said:
“After what happened to you, Lester, you don’t believe in rainbows and buttercups any more, do you, honey? Not at all. I can tell.”
The tone of her question suggested genuine interest, even a hint of compassion, but the subject matter was of a different ilk.
“I take that as a compliment, Estelle."
Lester grinned at first then remained silent. After a minute, he sputtered, "Well who wouldn’t be cynical? With the note I owe those gangsters? Those Romanian SONS of BITCHES!”
After he betrayed her, Estelle relished "firing Lester up," at least for a while. She certainly knew all his sore spots. As time went on, she ceased to care and concerned herself only with collage, became single minded in its pursuit, shutting out Lester almost entirely, making silly banter only when necessary. On this occasion, however, Estelle sat back in her chair, pursed her lips, and narrowed her large oval eye, affixing them upon Lester's sagging and petulant jowl. Her remarkable eyes, placed by nature just above a set of high contoured cheekbones, produced an expression, not kind, that had been described by men as sultry, the look which had attracted Lester to Estelle in the first place. He had fancied Estelle to be shrewd and had thought, "She's just the kind of dangerous woman that I like."
On that important morning, Estelle observed Lester bang on the table with both hands and as he did, pursed her lips a little bit further, trying not to smile. When thinking about the Romanian gangsters and what they had done to him, Lester always became embittered and overly emotional, often behaving like a big baby who had just shat himself. He admitted it:
“Emotional with a capital E every time I think of those SONS OF BITCHES!”
Every time Lester called the Romanians "those sons of bitches," Estelle knew to turn her face away, as a good half-cup of spittle came showering from his mouth in enunciating the es of bitches.
Over time, Estelle had grown tired of hearing Lester go on and on and on about the dilapidated building he bought from "those Romanian sons of bitches," his personal debt, and then, usually, how a select few individuals on Earth actually owned property outright. But on the morning the stranger appeared, as Estelle was sensing that bend in the road immediately ahead, she wanted to hear him go off one final time, for old times sake.
“Very few actually own. Most of us owe,” he grumbled as he had grumbled a thousand times before.
“I’m still tired of hearing your bullshit, Lester," Estelle whispered under her breath just as she too had whispered over a thousand and one times before. Estelle had adapted a "whispering persona," as Lester liked to call it, ever since he took her paintbrush. Lester hid her brush in the last bar without ever admitting out loud he had done so; not even admitting that a magic paintbrush existed. This enraged Estelle silently. They both knew, of course: He knew that she knew. Estelle, as well, never spoke outright of the issue. She would never give Lester that satisfaction. Eventually Estelle was certain she would get her brush back, and when she did, she also knew more or less, what was going to happen to Lester.
Lester did not know what was going to happen to him. If he had, he may have thought twice about hiding Estelle's paint brush.
If anything, Estelle's constant whispering seemed to get the best of Lester; the fact he couldn't hear what she was whispering about drove him what he called "bat shit crazy." But unlike Estelle, he couldn't control his emotions.
"That dad-gum whispering is driving me bat shit crazy, Estelle, goddammit. Can you please bring it down a notch? Or just speak in a normal tone? You know that makes me feel like I’m starring in Last House on the Left, don't you? I can’t remember if there was whispering in that one but you know what I mean. You sound like dead children.”
Estelle never did tone down her whispering. It represented one of her few freedoms. Collage was another; pouring olive oil over her head a not too distant third.
Lester bought the current bar for more than its market price, located in what became, shortly after purchase, a deserted and desolate industrial ghost town. He closed on the building the day before the large plumbing fixture plant next door shut its gates permanently. He hadn’t known the plant was sold when he signed and had sunk his entire life savings into the purchase, taking on a hefty note to be paid off over a fifteen year period. He visited the two Romanian brothers the day after the plant's closing, and asked for his money back, insisting they hadn’t told him about the factory closure. When Lester told them he was going to sue, the Romanian brothers looked at one another and laughed. Wadim, the older one, explained calmly that wasn't possible, that the money had already been deposited in a European bank They younger, Decebal, explained equally as calmly, how they would break every one of Lester’s fingers if he fell behind in even a single payment.
Estelle had been responsible for the whole thing.
At first, before Lester had taken her brush, she trusted him and had even been impressed, to a degree, with his ambition and ability to navigate through the world out there, a world which she loathed. She thought of him as a conduit in that regard, a necessary one. She inadvertently revealed to him information about her witchy ways, specifically that he could have her all to himself, or any witch he liked, simply if he took that witches wand and hid it. This was not any grand secret. Many stories and legends had already been passed along with something to that effect, but few understood that this was based on fact: Estelle would be physically bound to the house in which her wand was hidden. After that, all bets were off. Lester hid her wand in the new place and Estelle had to follow and live with him in the shit hole upstairs apartment, more like a crawlspace than a living quarter.
Estelle had turned on the sugar at the time, informing Lester in an urgent whisper of an inside tip of a sale she had received from her close and trusted Romanian cousins who owned the place, located beside one of the busiest factories in the city, with over twelve hundred employees, all of them beer drinkers. Her cousins had made their fortune there. Upon hearing the news, Lester had been elated, fully believing he would soon be making money hand over fist, and that their dreams would come true. In his excitement however, he did not once consider what he had done to Estelle or the impact that might have.
The place had been packed that first night and Lester took in over three thousand dollars, far more than he had ever made in a day. Toward the end of the evening, he had leaned across the bar and happily yelled out a question to one of the foremen, asking if he should always expect it to be this crowded..
“No! It's because the factory is closing tomorrow,” the night foreman had screamed back at him over the din.
When Lester put his hand to one ear, the foreman leaned a little closer and yelled, “No,” again then went on to explain they’d just completed their last shift and that there had been no plans by the company to put anything in the factory’s stead.
“The machines that make these parts are all so fucking antiquated they’re selling the metal for scrap, disassembling them as we speak. They’re farming out labor and manufacturing to China. Money has changed hands and the place is going to be a ghost town by daybreak.”
“Come again?“ Lester had croaked, almost unable to speak.
The foreman had already careened away to join his friends for one last toast.
Lester remained in a daze after closing that night, sick to his stomach. With his fist, he hit the wood paneled wall so hard that his newly mounted picture of the ‘27 Yankees, a prized family heirloom, shifted. The iconic photograph remained crooked until the very day of the stranger's arrival.