Novels and Short Stories

by John F. Dillon

 

Encounter in Zurich

by John F. Dillon

Oscar Morrison was a cold, fastidious man. No one could recall seeing him display emotion. His dress fitted his personality—always implicitly attired in a dark blue, three-piece pinstriped suit, navy-blue tie with a small school crest three-and-a-half inches beneath the tight knot at the collar of his starched white shirt. To say Oscar was a conservative would constitute a great understatement. He abhorred sports, the theater and contemporary novels—preferring economic journals. He had no known passions and no close friends. Some said he had a calculator for a heart. Oscar neither confirmed nor dispelled the belief. His high school yearbook contained few well-wishers or wise projections—one inscription decreed: “Most likely to be a bookkeeper or banker.”

Indeed, upon achieving an advance degree from a distinguished university—where again he excelled scholastically and had a social life that was nonexistence—he chose banking. He quickly advanced from a small privately run bank in Philadelphia to a high level officer’s position in the government’s financial sector. One of his duties was to attend an annual meeting in Zurich, Switzerland.

Every year the same identically dressed, seemingly unfeeling twelve attendees sat at a round table in the same small solon of the Hotel Schweizerhof on Zurich’s renowned Fahnhofstrasse. A few took temporary residence in the hotel while others preferred the upscale Dolder Grand Hotel located about twenty minutes from the city center. Oscar—preferring solitary walks and foodstuff at a neighborhood ‘wurst’ stand—never socialized with the other attendees and chose the Central Plaza Hotel overlooking the Limmat River and its proximity to Old Town.

The purpose of the meetings was one of planning and the discussion of latest banking innovations and techniques that had developed during the past year. It also afforded an excellent opportunity to fraternize with others in the banking world. Unfortunately, the others displayed the same idiosyncrasies as Oscar resulting in very little fraternization amongst the meeting attendees.

The three-day meeting—Monday through Wednesday—was normally schedule for late November. It began each morning at exactly eight-thirty and ended at the stroke of three in the afternoon. The Schweizerhof Hotel furnished coffee, tea and cakes at nine-thirty and a light lunch that included tea and soft drinks at noon.

Oscar found the sessions to be very dull and felt them to be a waste of time. However, he never vocalized his feelings instead accepting them to be part of the job and, like everything else in his life; kept his views to himself.

In 1981 the meeting was advanced to the middle of September because of hotel renovations.

Oscar arrived a little after eight-thirty Friday evening aboard a Swissair flight from London. After exchanging US Dollars for Swiss Francs, he took the indoor walk from the terminal to the Runway-Railway Connection. Arriving at the Main Station in Zurich, there was barely time to notice the balmy weather before a waiting taxi provided a short ride to the Central Plaza Hotel. Following registration, he went to his room, ordered a club sandwich from room service, and—after checking his leather wallet and the ticket for a Wednesday evening departure via British Airways, he placed his shoe outside his door and went to bed. It wasn’t until the following morning, when he looked from his window and observed the dress of people at the tram junction, did he suspect pleasant weather conditions and decided to take a stroll on the 'walking street'.

Before leaving, he carefully recorded—as was his proclivity—he made entries, including the day’s itinerary, in his pocket size, daily journal. leaving a space to note completion. In small precise script he wrote the words, “Days Itinerary” beside the date then underlined the title. Although there were previous recordings on the small page and his present entries where many, he was able to fit everything on a single sheet, including a time to visit the Fraumunster Cloister to view the work of Marc Chagall to reserving a single table at the Walliser Keller Restaurant for 7:30pm dinning.  He included an after dinner stroll on the Bahnhofstrasse before returning to the hotel for the evening. His final notations were to check preparations for the following days meeting and to arrange for a 6am wake-up call. He checked his notations before donning his classic 3-button coat and squaring his black felt fedora to an inch above his eyelids. After checking his wallet was secure in his trouser back pocket, he made a final check about the room, and was about to place the journal in the coat's inside pocket when he remembered to make a notation to leave his shoes outside his door before retiring. After mirrored inspection that required a removal of lint from the coat's sleeve, he felt ready for his walk.

A warm pleasant breeze greeted his departure from the hotel. As a concession to the morning’s sun, he took off the coat and folded it over his arm. Within minutes, he joined other pedestrians in Old Town making their way pass small open door boutiques displaying fineries for tourists. Jazz clubs prepared for nocturnal aficionados with improvised annotations that invaded nearby porno shops. Some restaurants presented outdoor tables with paper mats bearing the establishment’s logo—other eateries had small and intimate tables with a single long-stem flower rising from a vase at the center. Still others filled the tiny area in front of their enterprise with wooden picnic tables. Near the center of each, condiments wedged single sheet menus.

Oscar tended to walk with a slight stoop that made him appear mousy. Actually, he was tall and fit with quite handsome features. When didn’t feel required to wear a hat, he seemed to do his best to conceal the natural wave in his full head of chestnut colored hair by maintaining a short hairstyle and plastering it to his scalp with the application of a gel that straighten it into a fine luster.

He knew where he was going and after a leisurely fifteen minutes stroll, he followed a slight bend in the road before a familiar white and yellow striped food stand came into view. It was not until he had moved closer could he see the proprietor turning sausages on a rectangular grill.

Ignoring the Swiss-German greeting, he ordered a bratwurst in English and then took the paper plate containing the bratwurst, a piece of bread, a dab of spiced mustard, and a sliver of cardboard to a nearby bench. He was ready to sit when he realized he had not ordered a drink and returned for a can of Orange Crush.

He ate silently concentrating on the sausage. When he finished, he considered another. Instead, he took a deep breath; extracted his journal and placed a check mark beside item number two.

He was about to cross out of the walking street and return to his hotel when his life took a sudden change. Seemingly floating with the music about the shops, a vision merged with the day’s splendor as the most beautiful creature he ever saw was advancing in his direction.. He held his breath as she approached. His eyes continued when she passed noting her short navy dress tight against her buttocks. They feasted on the dimples on the backs of her knees before devouring her well-formed calves and slender ankles. An irrepressible impulse caused him to turn and take after her.

She stopped and viewed the contents of an open stand then turned and casually continued her walk. She paused again at an open-air café, hesitated then settled at one of picnic benches. Oscar moved, without thinking, to the area at her side pausing only to allow her to move her pocketbook and folded woolen parka. He then uttered a clumsy “thank you” as he sat. While placing his folded coat on the bench, he lifted his eyes to her profile.

In a low, sensual voice, she ordered a glass of Chardonnay from the white-shirted, waiter that appeared beside the table. Oscar was so enchanted he didn’t immediately recognize that she had spoken in Swiss-German—a guttural sounding language he felt to be harsh and crude and never attempted to comprehend.

On the opposite side of the table a young man was playing ‘hide the pea’ with three walnut half-shells. Exhibiting amazing hand speed, he shuffled the pea between the shells then stopped and challenged observers to the pea’s location.

The girl pointed and the young man uncovered her selected shell. The uncovered space was empty.

For a one that had never initiated a conversation with a member of the opposite sex, Oscar displayed uncharacteristic boldness. He turned his head to face her, inhaled, touched her arm, and said: “He’s pretty good…isn’t he?”

His question was answered when she replied in perfect English: “Yes, he certainly is.”

Oscar surprised himself when he seized the moment by saying, “This is the first time that I visited Zurich in the fall.” He hesitated, then—realizing that his declaration had nothing to do with the her response—murmured, “It’s a beautiful city.”

Her mouth widened into a smile that exposed glittering white teeth. “Have you been to other places in Switzerland?”

Only Zurich...I come every year…on business...usually in late November.”

“And you have never left Zurich?”

Oscar felt uncomfortable. “Uh… No. I was going to take a train to Lucerne once but… It’s uh…always been so cold.”

That is too bad.  There are so many beautiful little villages. There’s a beautiful waterfall....”

“Waterfall?”

“Yes, in the village close to where I stay—up in the mountains.”

“What brings you to the city — To Zurich?”

“I came for the day." She placed a hand on her wine glass then said, "I must return this evening—ten o’clock.”

"Tonight?”

“Yes, I must return by ten.”

The light of day reflected off her short black hair. Parted in the center, it sloped at an angle from her head and covered all but the lobes of her ears before curling over her forehead.  The hair framed an unblemished, slender face with predominate cheekbones, hazel eyes and wide, rose covered lips that revealed her straight white teeth when she smiled.  There was a slight droop at the corners of her lips that held a hint of melancholy but when she smiled, two small indents—dimples, creased the cheeks beside her mouth and any sign of sorrow disappeared as her eyes sparkled with excitement.  Her exuberance radiated to Oscar and his emotions soared.

She was totally unpretentious—chatting with the waiter about the wine and weather and complementing the boy with the walnut shells. She seemed unconscious of the turmoil her presence was causing to the man beside her.

“Are you free?” she asked Oscar.

Oscar was quick to answer. “Yes!" he told her. "I’ve never been married!”

The girl laughed. “No! No! I didn’t ask if you were married. I’m free until ten o’clock tonight so if you're free today, I can show you the most beautiful little village in the world. If you're free and would like to go, there's a train leaving shortly.”

"Yes! Sure! I’m free. I’d love to go with you!” He realized he was stammering but couldn’t stop. “That is if you’ll …I mean if…if you don’t mind… What about you? Are you married?”

A cloud seemed to fall over her eyes and she hesitated.  “No. I’m not married.” She smiled, yet the cloud remained. “But, I have a boyfriend. He’s in Rio—Rio de Janeiro...in Brazil.” She paused and her voice lowered. “He left...” She emitted a low anguished sigh and completed her sentence in a whisper, ”I’m expecting a telephone call.” Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the cloud vanished and the brightness returned. And once again she grabbed Oscar's heart with the smile that caused him to catch his breath.

“There is no problem. I don’t have to be anywhere until tonight—ten o’clock— tonight. I’d be most happy to be your tourist guide.” She glanced at her watch. “There’s a train leaving soon.  If you would like….”

Oscar couldn’t believe his good fortune and exclaimed: “I’m ready now!”As he lifted himself from the bench, he instinctively checked for his wallet then, half serious and half in jest, laughed: “I’d follow you anywhere.”

She accidently brushed against him when she rose causing him to instinctively steady her with a hand on her arm. When she didn’t protest, he allowed his hand to remain until they stood in the queue at the train station and he had to reach inside his trouser pocket for his wallet. “Would you mind getting the tickets for us?” he asked extending a hand full of Swiss-Franks. “You know what to…“

“Of course,” she replied and extracted the necessary amount from the bundle he presented in the palm of his hand. She smiled and glanced at him as she returned the excess. “Only one round trip is necessary,” she told him. “I have mine.”

Oscar was preoccupied with returning his wallet to his pocket and viewing the inside of the station and didn't hear the destination when she ordered the ticket nor did he ask.

He briefly considered reaching for her hand as they waited and after boarding the train, but fearing rejection, decided against it.

She was the only woman in the first-class compartment that held six adults. Sausages and beer were ordered and soon the men began joking in Swiss-German. The girl soon joined in their merrymakings. Oscar feigned a smile when they laughed and exaggerated applause at their singing, but not understanding the language, he felt ignored. For the first time in his life this very private man wanted to be a part of the hubbub. When he could not, he experienced the pain of jealousy.

The singing and laughter continued while the train moved efficiently from station to station. Oscar had no knowledge of direction, or stops, or destination. All he knew was that, for the first time in his life, he was in love. He decided to give up everything—his job, his life, his citizenship—to be with her.

Eventually, she rose and while exchanging comments with the men, her hand clasped his. Her laughing face turned to him and when she purred, “We’re here,” his pain vanished. With jaunty goodbyes to the other travelers, she led him to the open platform.

They walked on ancient cobblestone through an enchanting fairyland. Totally animated, she was childlike in her enthusiasm with exclamations of, “See! See! Isn’t that just beautiful?” They sauntered pass flowered shops and gardens and the magnificence of century old dwellings with window boxes overflowing in color. At last they stopped—arrested by the majestic splendor of water projecting from a monstrous crack in a black granite wall and falling in long streams of foamed white to an unseen grotto.

“And you live here?”

“Up there,” she responded pointing to a gap beyond the waterfall.

When she suggested lunch on a veranda with a panorama view of the mountains, he sensed an opportunity to sit and gaze at the visions before him and gleefully agreed.

The spectator complemented her beauty. They ordered a light lunch, a bottle of chardonnay and, oblivious to the other patrons, talked into the afternoon. It came as no surprise when she told him she had modeled internationally.

“How long ago did your boyfriend leave for Brazil?” he asked and immediately knew he made a mistake when the cloud reappeared.

She lowered her face then looked to the waterfall and said, “Two years. I’m expecting a telephone call…any day.”

Oscar considered her answer. “Obviously, she didn’t understand what I was asking,” he said to himself. “Funny thing about languages—it’s the nuances.” He did not want to see the cloud again but it appeared later when he asked about her parents. When she didn’t respond—he let it drop promising to enroll in language courses as soon as possible.

The temperature ebbed with the light of day. Patrons left—some disappearing inside the restaurant—-others to parked automobiles. Soon they were alone.

Seeking comfort from the chill, she stood to put on her parka. He rose to assist and put on his coat. As he did, he inadvertently touched her left breast. He stiffened and once again the sound of his heart pounding was so loud he was sure she could notice.

Her eyes told him nothing.

He permitted his hand to linger. Desire overcame the fear of rejection and he placed his right arm inside her coat and encircled her slim waist. Ever so slowly he pulled her closer. Finding no resistance, he leaned forward. His eyes closed. His lips grazed her check, brushed the tip of her nose, and finally, gently, touched her lips— and held.

He scarcely noticed her lack of response.

First dusk, then darkness, and the mountains faded in front of the lingering couple—touching, kissing and talking as they huddled alone at a side table on the wooded deck of the restaurant overlooking the waterfall. Between clutches she checked her watch and reminded him of her ten-o’clock appointment.

“Will you be long?” he ventured but before she could answer, blurted, ”Maybe I could go with you and—and wait?”

“Wait?”

“Yes! I can go with you and when you’re done with your appointment…We can…ah…maybe we could get together again.”

She looked bewildered.

“Is it far?”

“Far?...No, not very far…" she whispered.”It's only thirty-five minutes by taxi—in the mountains.“

They continued talking and occasionally sipping from the bottle of wine. He told stories, joked, flirted, and kissed. She listened to his stories and laughed at his jokes.

The longer they sat, the more he wanted her. He envisioned a hotel room awaiting them after her meeting. “It will have to have a mini-bar,” he laughed to himself. ”—A room with a view and a cold bottle of Champagne.”

Eventually, a waiter appeared and announced the deck was being closed for the evening.

“No! No! Don’t do that!” She exclaimed when Oscar left a sizable tip after paying the bill. She snapped the money from the plate and admonished: “Just leave the change. We Swiss worked very hard to abolish big tips.” Her teeth glistened behind the smile. “We don’t need you Americans messing it up,” she teased as she returned the Swiss notes to him.

They spent another hour and a half walking hand in hand though the magical village lighted by the glow of a three-quarter moon. At last it was time for her meeting and she hailed a taxi. She gave directions in Swiss-German.

The taxi passed the waterfall then left the lights of the village and moved up the mountain road. The night’s light echoed from the early snowfall that coated the sides of the road. The road continued it’s incline then suddenly leveled. Before them, the lights of a large white mansion behind a spiked metal fence painted the night.

The mansion grew larger as they neared. The taxi slowed and finally stopped before the entrance gate. A tall man in a white uniform opened the taxi door. He smiled a smile of recognition before reaching for the girl’s arm.

She exchanged words with the man in white as a stunned Oscar watched the girl move from the taxi. His dream collapsed completely when the man looked into the cab, nodded and said something in Swiss-German.

“I’m sorry—English please.”

The man looked at Oscar, smiled broadly then switching to English said in a singsong voice, “Thank you for taking Heidi home.”

Oscar eyes skipped from the man to the mansion; to the fence; to the gate; to a plaque affixed to the post beside the entrance and stopped. The moving lights of the night reflected off the letters and made the words almost unreadable. Instinct told him it was important. He narrowed his eyes and moved his head until he could discern the last word that flickered within the shadows of moving figures— “Sanatorium.” And he knew. The events of the day flashed like kaleidoscopic images—ignored comments—ten-o’clock appointment—boyfriend in Brazil—telephone call….

“Could you please ask the driver to take me to back to the train station? For…Zurich.”

Following an exchange between the man and the driver, the door closed and the taxi left.

Oscar felt a timid sense of relief when the taxi pulled into the station and he saw the sign with an arrow below the words: “To Zurich,” with the umlaut above the letter U.

Still tentative after he boarded, he peered anxiously at the signs posted at each passing station until he was certain he was traveling in the right direction. Eventually, he relaxed and ordered a beer. He sat back in his seat; and played his adventure over in his mind as he sipped from the cardboard mug. When he recalled the singsong: “Thank you for taking Heidi home,” he laughed aloud and loosened his tie.

He was still reliving the encounter when he bedded hat evening at the hotel. He forgot to consult his journal and did not leave his shoes outside the door as he gently slipped into sleep.

The End

top