When I first lived in the city, I got a job at Chock-Full-o’Nuts on 57th Street and Eighth Avenue. One evening a very interesting man came in. He had piercing eyes. He sat at my station, ordered black coffee, then asked if I were a student.
“An artist, then?”
“No, I’m an actress.”
“That is being an artist.”
He smiled. I replaced the coffee pot on the hot plate and when I turned back toward him, he had disappeared.
The man appeared at my workstation each evening for a while. He always ordered black coffee and a plain doughnut which he nibbled but never seemed to eat. He would look me over. He was sly about it, but I was in the habit of observing. I would smile and offer more coffee. He would always accept. Then he would disappear, leaving the extra coffee untouched. I never heard the opening or closing of the door.
Then, one night he didn’t come. Nor did he come on subsequent nights. I missed him for a while, but then forgot about him.
I had been cast as Mrs. Popov in The Boor for a production of three Chekov one-act plays. On the evening of dress rehearsal, a rainstorm suddenly arose as I was leaving work. It had been sunny when I left, so I hadn’t thought to bring an umbrella.
All I could do was duck into doorways. It was raining even harder and I still had a couple of blocks to go when I ducked into the doorway of an apartment building. I heard a rustling and looked down. On the side of the entryway was a rat, wet and shivering. He looked up at me and I backed up against the wall hoping to give him some space to go away.
“Madam, can I help you?”
I blinked and found myself facing the man who had been coming to my workstation.
“Yes, we have met – after a fashion. You gave me extra coffee at Chock-Full-o’Nuts. I am Sebastian.”
I looked at the doorway toward the street but was afraid to move. I didn’t want the rat to come out from wherever it was and scamper across my feet.
“Would you walk out with me? There was a rat here.
He smiled, seemingly with satisfaction. “A rat will only bite if it feels trapped or if it is hungry. I will accompany you. I have an umbrella.”
“Oh, thank you.”
When we reached the rehearsal hall, he asked if I would allow him to offer me dinner some night, although very late.
“Why not?” I thought to myself
“Why not, indeed,” he responded aloud.
On the night we were to have dinner I finished wiping down my counter area, removed my apron and took my hairnet off. I closed my eyes and tossed my head to let my hair flow down my back again. When I opened my eyes, I saw Sebastian standing at my station.
“How did you get in? I thought the door was locked.”
“Don’t forget – tonight.” He smiled.
I turned to hang up my apron. When I spun around again, he was gone. This doesn’t seem normal, I thought. I was beginning to wonder.
It was the night of the autumnal equinox; starting tomorrow, night would outlast the day. Even though it was already dark I decided I would walk home. I felt safe walking in the dark, even though everyone warned me about how dangerous New York was. Deep down, I believed I led a charmed life and no harm would befall me.
I was ready when the doorbell rang. I opened it and there stood Sebastian. He smiled, and we looked each other up and down for a few seconds.
“Are you going to ask me in?” he said. “I cannot enter unless you invite me.””
He was carrying an interesting walking stick. It was walnut, with a carved handle. It seemed to be the face of a dog. No, it was a wolf, its forelegs wrapped around the shaft of the walking stick, while its long tail cascaded downward.
“The wolf face looks almost human.”
A slight smile was all he responded.
“Did you inherit the cane from a relative?”
“No. It was a gift for my twenty-first birthday. It was new.”
He offered no more information. New? Sebastian appeared to be about twenty-eight, but the cane looked antique. And so began the process of luring me deeper and deeper.