As far as modern relationships went, in particular the one between Lester and Estelle, unspoken terms were spread across the table like cutlery, salt shakers and flower arrangements. Estelle figured Lester was paying for the meal, that he owed her that, providing a bare semblance of stability along with the rudiments of collage making supplies, the minimum of what she needed to stave off the anxiety associated with an artistic temperament. She didn’t consider this to be a fair trade as she was coerced into the whole thing but in coming from practical stock, the concept was not unfamiliar to her. Her genes were shared with a lineage of witches living in thatched huts deep within thick forests of Romania's Carpathians. At first, 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, transcending time itself. Lester loved all that, as men generally did, but the truth was more mundane. Lester liked bacon and so did Estelle. She liked Japanese samurai movies from the sixties, the black and white ones; Lester kept a few of those within his rather extensive "classics collection." That was about all they had in common.
Lester was aware himself to be lucky: Estelle was low maintenance as far as witches from that region went; most of them were described as "hard-assed bitches," women who battered their men regularly, even castrated them and devoured their genitals at slightest provocation. Estelle kept her cool in this way; that is, until Lester decided to get greedy.
“I’m storing up Romanian hoo-doo,” she whispered to herself. “One day it’ll rain down on Lester’s head like a blizzard of ten penny nails from the mountain top.”
Estelle met Lester waitressing in the bar he had once owned on the downtown strip. All his bars were called Lester's Place, not Lester's Place Two or Lester's Place Three. Lester had been impressed with Estelle's single mindedness, unlike others in his employment. After each shift, Estelle made a beeline home to labor on collage until falling asleep from exhaustion. With no genuine interest in social life, her natural appearance was interpreted incorrectly by men with whom she interacted as wanton and seductive. As time went on, in order to negotiate the ever-increasing rents and utility bills, Estelle found herself spending more and more time at the bar than doing what needed to be done in the cut and paste department. She had become more waitress than artist. Lester's offer had been sheer luck or, "norocul" in her language, a concept in which she didn't really invest but accepted. Despite this good fortune, Estelle nevertheless understood Lester, overall, 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, certainly not to her. What mattered was the present and the fact she could sense a bend in the road ahead. Precisely because of that premonition, on that very morning of the stranger's appearance, Estelle was moved to make what sounded like a sympathetic remark to Lester. She rarely made sympathetic remarks to Lester. He 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?”
The tone of the question suggested genuine interest to him, even a hint of compassion, but the subject matter was of a different ilk.
“I take that as a compliment, Estelle," he asserted, grinning. His grin rapidly faded, as he remained silent, thinking about what she said further; after a minute of thinking further, 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 any opportunity to "fire Lester up." She certainly knew his sore spots. She ceased to care in general how he felt and concerned herself with matters of collage making, becoming single minded in the pursuit and thereby shutting Lester out of her mind almost entirely, offering silly banter only when absolutely necessary. On this occasion however, Estelle sat back in her chair, pursed her lips, narrowed her large oval eyes, and affixed them on Lester's sagging and petulant jowl. These eyes, placed by nature above a set of high contoured cheekbones, produced a somewhat unkind expression, described by men of course as sultry, the very look which attracted Lester to Estelle in the first place. He fancied Estelle to be shrewd and thought to himself,
"She's just the kind of dangerous woman that I like."
Estelle had succeeded in firing Lester up that morning and observed him bang on the table with both hands. She pursed her lips a bit more and tried not to smile. When thinking about the Romanian gangsters and what they had done to him, Lester became embittered and emotional, often behaving like a big baby, or worse, a big baby who had just shat himself. He admitted to this:
“Emotional with a capital E is what I get every time I think about those SONS OF BITCHES!”
And every time Lester called the Romanians "those sons of bitches," Estelle knew to turn her face away, as a good half-cup of spittle would inevitably come showering from his mouth in enunciating the es of bitches.
Over time, Estelle had grown tired of hearing Lester rant on and on and on about the dilapidated building he had purchased from "those Romanian sons of bitches," about his personal debt, and then, about how only a few individuals on Earth actually owned property outright.
On that morning the stranger appeared, as Estelle sensed the bend in the road was just ahead, she wanted to hear Lester go off one final time, for old time’s sake.
“Very few actually own. Most of us owe,” he grumbled as she had heard him grumble a thousand times before.
“I’m still tired of hearing your bullshit, Lester," Estelle whispered under her breath, as she too had whispered over a thousand, even a thousand and one times before. Estelle had adapted a "whispering persona," as Lester liked to call it, ever since he stole her paintbrush. Lester hid the brush in the last bar without owning up he had done so; or even once admitting that a magic paintbrush even existed. This enraged Estelle to no end, but silently so. They both knew, of course: He knew she knew. Estelle, as well, never spoke outright of the issue. She would never give Lester that satisfaction.
Estelle was certain she would get her brush back, and knew, when she did, what was going to happen to Lester. Lester did not know what was going to happen to him. If he had, he might have thought twice before 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 whispered drove him what he liked to call "bat shit crazy." 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 that 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 deal, 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 threatened to sue, the Romanian brothers regarded one another and began laughing. Wadim, the older one, calmly explained he couldn’t have his money back, that his money had already been deposited in a European bank They younger, Decebal, then 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 hidden the brush, she trusted him and was even impressed to a degree, by 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 the legend 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. Estelle had no choice but to follow and live with him in the shit hole upstairs apartment, more like a crawlspace than living quarters.
Estelle had turned on the sugar at the time, informing Lester through urgent breathy whispering of the inside tip on a sale she received from her close and trusted Romanian cousins, the owners of a bar situated beside one of the busiest factories in the city, a factory with over twelve hundred employees, all of them beer drinkers. Her cousins had made a 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, he did not once consider what he had done to Estelle or the impact that might have.
The place was packed that first night and Lester took in over three thousand dollars, far more than he had ever made in one day. Toward the end of the evening, he leaned across the bar and happily yelled out to one of the foremen, asking the joyously rhetorical question if he should always be expecting crowds like this to be drinking up his beer. He laughed heartily and winked, not expecting an answer.
“No!” The foreman screamed back, loud enough to be heard over the din: “The factory closed!”
Lester put his hand to one ear. The foreman leaned a little closer and again yelled, “No,” then went on to explain they’d just completed their last shift and 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 croaked, almost inaudibly. The foreman had already careened away to join his friends for one last toast.
The foreman had already careened away to join his friends for one last toast while Lester remained in a daze, feeling like he just ate a sock he'd been wearing for a week. After closing, he hit the wood paneled wall so hard, his newly mounted picture of the ‘27 Yankees, a prized family heirloom, shifted and remained crooked like that for nearly ten years, until the day of the stranger's arrival.