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Leonora labeled him the Russian salesman, as though he were a kind of foreign pastry, but Maurice Baran wasn't Russian at all. He spoke English with a perfect broad American accent. However, Maurice warned her that she could never be sure of his origins, because the KGB trained native Russian toddlers in perfect American all during the cold war - to be future spies. "Do the math," he said. "Am I the right age?"
Their very first conversation was about sumo wrestling, which he said was his favorite sport - even though he was thin as a rail.
"Why do you like that?" Leonora asked. "Around here everyone loves yacht racing."
They were at intermission during a small, private concert at a home known as The Ledges. Waitresses in black glided here and there with the crusted irresistables Leonora had designed - and champagne in heirloom crystal flutes.
"Sumo is older than yacht racing," he said. "A lot older. It goes back to the Eighth Century, at least. These yachties think they're so traditional. They're just newcomers, really."
Just as the intermission ended she asked him what it takes to build a normal male into a sumo wrestler. It was a subject she had thought about many times before - palpitating and salivating as she did.
Maurice drained his champagne and gave her a playful stare. He even did two big leg extensions ending in a mock sumo stomp, which turned a few heads. "Training," he said. "Years of it. And, of course, food."
"I imagine lots of food."
Maurice winked and returned to his seat. Leonora watched him. She remembered the softness of his mouth, the absence of any edge to his chin. She had seen the whites of the eyes, and she could tell he was no spy. She was ecstatic that his last word had been food.
Leonora was a cook who didn't mind how hot the kitchen got. For all of her renowned expertise, she blithely gave away her prized recipes to other women. She did it with moist eyes and warm smiles and earthy hugs. She wrote the recipes out on her finest stationery with a careful hand, as though she were inscribing an intricate cake. But, with the same careful hand, she omitted minor yet critical ingredients. A sprig of this, a pinch of that.
The women never blamed their inevitable failures on her - they remembered the smiles and hugs, the heartfelt words of encouragement. They were convinced it was they themselves who had failed Leonora. In the kitchen they simply weren't what Leonora was.
In short, Leonora cooked to win, and she ate the way she cooked: for strength and pride. To her, an underfed woman was no better than a half-starved lioness at the edge of the pride: ribs showing, eyes glazed with fear, death stalking her on the grassy plain because she was too slow and weak to break the zebra's neck. Leonora's physical presence suggested she fed jubilantly on the marrow from large bones. She was broader than Maurice, and she had a couple of inches on him in the height department too.
Leonora returned to her seat and watched the tall, wild-haired piano soloist perform a demanding piece, described in the program as Brahms Variations and Fugue in B-Flat on a Theme by Handel. The soloist had fingers so long they could palm a basketball, and he threw his whole body into the playing with such zeal his chin dripped sweat on the keys. But Leonora hardly took notice of him; or took notice of him as an accessory only. From where she sat - in the front orchestra, stage left - her view was the soloist's heaving back, his crashing hands, the keys and the open book of sheet music just above the keys. And one other shape, the one that grabbed her eyeballs and held them like a vice. This was a small, slight Filipino youth standing straight as a board at the soloist's side - in a state of rapt concentration. He was the page-turner: so child-sized he was no taller on his feet than the soloist was sitting down. Leonora's eyes bore into the Filipino boy with the same burning intensity as the boy's eyes bore into the sheet music. The ramrod stillness of his Lilliputian body accentuated the power of his stare. He never moved a flicker, except when the score thundered to the last written note in the bottom line, and then his right arm shot out like a striking snake, pincered the page at the corner and flipped it. The execution so efficient it was as though the page had turned itself.
It was an eternity before Maurice was back in town long enough to have a meal at Leonora's place. This visit was when she first heard about the Sharapova girl.
"What exactly is it you sell - to the Russians?" Leonora watched him mop up the last swirls of chasseur sauce and she immediately refilled his plate, with no objections from him at all. Just the thought of serving him chasseur excited her. The word meant hunter, and Leonora, as she watched Maurice bite and chew and swallow - watched him crave her sauce like a vampire craves blood - felt so much like a huntress her ladle could as well have been a crossbow.
"Drugs," Maurice replied. "But it's not exactly like it sounds." He said he had flown Aeroflot so much he felt like one of those well-traveled goats he used to share space with in the airline's earlier days, when the engines were so frail and the cargo so heavy the planes would stagger to get off the ground, then hover interminably until, finally, some gust or hand of heaven thrust them sputtering up to the clouds.
He said he worked for a pharma company whose business plan was based on the fact that Russian doctors are paid next to nothing, and that most of the Russian population would kill to get free drugs, any drugs. Maurice's task was to round up the doctors and the human guinea pigs and form panels for testing new wonder meds. "It's easier than doing it in America," he said. "Here everyone's afraid even to drink water."
Over the course of the next several dinners, Leonora moved Maurice to extreme lard-based preparations, even venturing to serve long slices of pure pig fat as an appetizer. This she called a rare white prosciutto, cochon de la neige, and he was thrilled to take seconds and even thirds. The more he ate, the more he talked. Both vodka and women in Russia, he said, are not unlike the Aeroflot planes - meaning that the old and the new are pretty much everywhere. "On any street you can buy vodka for two dollars or two hundred dollars," he said. "In any city you can find old crones in babushkas or the leggy, gorgeous ones in La Perla thongs, the Sharapova type."
Leonora sliced him another wedge of her mile-high Pavlova au crème Gargantua. "Really," she said, "and what do you think of the Sharapova type?"
In short order, she learned that Maurice spent as much time in the bulkheads of America West as on Aeroflot. "Good as the Sharapovas are," he said, "the most stunning ones of all you don't find on the tennis courts in sneakers. You find them on the ice, on skates. They're magnificent, and they're even taller than your dessert."
He accepted a third cream-drenched pyramid and slid a picture out of his wallet. In front of a purple and gold velvet curtain stood Maurice, a sheepish grin on his face, one arm at his side and the other wrapped around the waist of a girl who epitomized what he'd just been describing. "She skates in Vegas at the Riviera," he said. "They have an ice show there, all Russians, all exquisite. The best seats are around this horseshoe of ice and they come skating right by you and your vodka, so close you can smell them. No one skates with more feeling than Russians. You want to lick their skates. There's nothing, nothing like..."
Leonora moved like a big cat for the Chateau Y'qem and poured Maurice a double. She tapped a long nail on the photograph. "And what about her? Do they let her out to pose with the tourists? Did you have to pay?"
Maurice sipped, then sipped again. "Pay? Why pay anything? That's Alyona, my girlfriend. All I pay for is a plane ticket and a room at Mandalay Bay."
"A skinny old shit like you? I don't believe it." This is what Leonora wanted to say but didn't let herself say, even though it took so much tongue-biting she could taste blood. Years of stalking the grassy plains had taught her that actions speak louder than words, and her plan of action, swiftly galvanized by the rage and hurt, was now solid as a rolling pin: Stuff the Russian salesman like a foie gras goose. Create so many rolls on his belly the Michelin Man looks starved by comparison; fatten his scrawny pecs into breasts so pendulous Alyona becomes repulsed by his every jelly-like shudder.
Leonora kept quiet, kept strategizing and kept cooking. While serving Maurice shovels of her five-cheese kugel one day, it occurred to her that if the Russian salesman didn't pan out there was a most superlative Plan B. Of course! - the Filipino page-turner. She became fixated on her remembered image: the pianist and the page-turner locked together before the great black block of a piano. She saw it as a Nineteenth Century tableau, a kind of sculptural group depicting the essence of colonialism. The tall Caucasian dominating the huge instrument and the torrent of sound and the entire audience, which sat mesmerized below. And at his side, dwarfed, anonymous and unnoticed, the subjugated Pacific boy: while he was flipping pages today, tomorrow perhaps he'd be fanning the air around the white oppressor with palm fronds or reeds of bamboo.
To take this jockey-sized serf and feed him and feed him and see him swell - until he was a boulder that might roll atop the high and mighty soloist and flatten him - the thought so stoked Leonora she began to see the Russian salesman as unimportant, as empty and pallid a vessel as a vodka bottle after the vodka has been guzzled.
While her tantalizing concoctions simmered and shirred, she warmed to the idea of the Filipino - in particular to a new image of him she couldn't get out of her head. It was the concert piano onstage all over again, except this time the great black block was a stove, and she, Leonora, was in the role of soloist, fingers flying over all six burners.
And beside her, his head no higher than her apron-top, stood the page-turner - fat as he was tall and expanding exponentially - every ounce of him burning to bring her that one grain of salt or even sit and sizzle on the white-hot skillet, if that's what Leonora commanded him to do.
She summarily dumped the Russian salesman and schemed her way into getting an introduction to the tall soloist, just to acquire the page-turner's contact information.
But on the day they were to meet she had all her digits done at the newly opened Star of Paris Nails. The person assigned to her fingers and toes was a total surprise: a big-bellied, twenty-year-old Vietnamese boy. She became aroused, of course, when he bowed to her feet, but that wasn't the reason she found him alluring. All the boy wanted, he confessed with a loud belly laugh, were objects made of steel or wires: hot cars and digital gadgets. His cravings struck Leonora as pure macho. And his tattoos said so even more: they were bad: jailhouse bad, cage-fighting bad. And yet he was a mani-pedi boy. What made him exquisitely delicious was he saw no contradiction in this whatsoever, no reason to feel guilty or sissified over his job. He did nails because his parents owned the store and the money was good. It was that simple.
Leonora had read, in the Guinness Book of Records, that not long ago a fourteen hundred pound man had married a one hundred forty pound woman, setting the world mark for the greatest weight disparity of any married couple ever. She looked at the belly of the Vietnamese boy and saw possibilities. She made a new mani-pedi appointment and started planning the greatest, richest, most captivating menus of her career.
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