Shopping to Byzantium
Bob Roberts tentatively opened the office door that had “HistTech Inc.” stenciled in skinny black type on its frosted glass window, and eased his bulky body into the small waiting room. A faded maroon carpet and beige walls held a large oak desk and a row of brown folding chairs with red seat cushions. A woman sat at the desk, deftly sliding sheets of white paper from one pile to a second. She wore glossy purple glasses with large circular rims and a gray sweater patterned with red and blue birds. A man sat cross-legged in one of the chairs, reading the newspaper. He was long and boney, his elbows and knees exaggerated in a creased charcoal suit that was too large for him. Bob wore khaki slacks, a blue button-down shirt that barely contained his chest and stomach, and a pink and white striped Kenzo tie that he had bought on sale two years ago. The man in the charcoal suit neatly folded his paper in half and placed it on his lap, as he addressed Bob.
“Can I help you?”
“Ah, yeah, hi,” Bob said, instantly thinking he’d fumbled his opening line and made a horrible first impression. The woman stopped shuffling papers and locked eyes on Bob. “I’m Bob Roberts. I work next door at the National Irish Space Program extension office, ah, New York branch.”
“Oh, I see,” said the other man, standing and shaking Bob’s hand enthusiastically. “Sorry about that business in the men’s room last week. I know we made a proper mess with not getting the tourniquet right the first time and I do apologize.”
“No, no.” Bob shook his head, having no idea what the man was talking about. “I’m not here to complain about anything. I wanted to ask about, well, your business.”
“But not our bathroom business,” said the woman, folding her narrow hands together on the desk top.
“I’m Mr. Jenkins,” the man said, putting a hand on Bob’s shoulder and guiding him to the row of red-cushioned chairs. “And this is Ms. Mordant, my assistant. Please continue.”
Bob perched his large frame on the narrow chair.
“Last week I happened to be coming to work late and I passed a guy in the hallway, leaving your office. He wasn’t really paying attention and sort of bumped into me . . .”
“What could be the chances,” said Ms. Mordant, spreading her hands farther and farther apart on the edge of the desk.
“And he dropped one of your brochures.” Bob displayed a pamphlet depicting an American Revolutionary soldier holding a musket and a thin woman in a white flapper dress dancing, HistTech Inc. emblazoned in gold letters across the top edge, and ‘Action, adventure, romance and intrigue’ printed across the bottom.
“So I read it, and . . .”
The room paused. Bob held his pamphlet, Mr. Jenkins held his paper, and Ms. Mordant held herself ready.
“Well, you do time travel here, right?”
“Bingo.” Ms. Mordant opened a desk drawer and removed several paper forms.
“Yes, sir,” said Mr. Jenkins, setting his paper down beside him and sending Ms. Mordant a reproaching glower.
“Where you send a fellow back in time.”
“How else would you do it?” said Ms. Mordant.
“Indeed,” said Mr. Jenkins, “we here at HistTech Inc. have developed a simple procedure that allows a traveler to step back in time. Are you interested, Mr. Roberts?”
“Well, yes, I am. Tonight is my six month anniversary and my girlfriend really likes the new Spartacus show on television and is always going on about the jewelry and the clothes and the hairstyles and I thought that maybe, if it didn’t cost too much, I’d hop back in time and grab her something nice and give it to her at dinner tonight.”
“A quick sortie. A brief temporal transport for provisions romantic.” Jenkins nodded in time to Bob’s disclosure.
“Yeah,” Bob said, “So, how much would it cost to jump back to Rome for the afternoon? I’ve already made dinner reservations for eight o’clock.”
“Rome is extremely popular,” Mr. Jenkins said, “very likely due to the very program you just mentioned. It really depends on your budget. How much were you thinking of spending on the lucky girl?”
“Oh, maybe two hundred dollars.”
“Wow, two hundred dollars,” said Ms. Mordant. “Is that dinner or dinner and a necklace.”
“Ms. Mordant, please,” chided Mr. Jenkins.
“I was actually planning on stealing the necklace,” Bob said sheepishly. “I mean, its time travel. How could they catch me? You know.”
“What a charmer.”
“Ms. Mordant, please! Such an enterprise readily allows itself to a discretionary conscience. $200 doesn’t go far in the time travel business. Rome especially is pricy, and likely out of your fiscal grasp. However, I appreciate your noble cause to storm the battlements of love’s redoubt. Are you familiar with later Roman history? Perhaps we could whisk you to the Byzantine Empire?”
“I don’t know.” Bob hesitated. “I’m not a fan of complex schemes.”
“No, no. Byzantine as in Byzantium. The city. A later phase of the Roman Empire. Centered in Constantinople? Renamed Istanbul? Ringing any bells?”
“I hear a death knell ringing,” said Ms. Mordant.
Bob thought he should have something artful to say, but didn’t and defaulted to, “How much?”
“No one else has heard of it either,” Jenkins sympathetically nodded, “but it is very similar to Rome. An extension, really. What with the sieges and chariots and riots and poisonings.”
“Poisonings? Am I going to need insurance?”
“You couldn’t afford the premium,” Ms. Mordant quipped.
“Of course by the thirteenth century Constantinople was more Greek than Roman, culturally and linguistically,” Jenkins continued. “How is your Greek?”
“Their gyros are OK,” Bob said, “But I’m not a fan of feta.”
“I’ll include in our patented Language Transmogrifier, gratis.”
“What’s a Language Transmogrifier?”
“Little metal device. Used in Hollywood. Attaches to the interior frontal lobe. Initially commissioned by Spielberg so he wouldn’t have to read subtitles.”
“I liked E.T.” Bob said.
“We’ll put you down moments before the Fourth Crusade, right before the siege, footsteps ahead of the Franks. Plenty of time to pick something up from the forum. And if grand larceny is your modus operandi then the consequences should be few, what with the city in flames.”
“Who is this Frank guy?”
Jenkins huffed an airy laugh. “The attacking crusaders are mostly French and the Greek citizens refer to them as ‘Franks’. I’d suggest avoiding the Franks if I were you. How is your French, by the way?”
“The long bread is ok, if you aren’t too hungry,” Bob said, “but I’m not a fan of fried snails.”
Jenkins stood and clapped Bob on the shoulder. “Very good, Mr. Roberts. Ms. Mordant, how soon can we get our new friend strolling the streets of Byzantium?”
With a cold fluorescent burst and the stinging odor of burnt hair, Bob was suddenly standing barefoot on wobbly legs, dressed in a faded blue hospital gown. The bandage holding the gauze pad to his forehead started to slip and he readjusted. He was in a small room with columns in each corner and an intricate tiled pattern of a brown lion chasing a dun antelope beneath his feet. Or is it a deer, Bob wondered. He looked at his watch. The process had taken 45 minutes, it seemed, and he had maybe four hours before his dinner date. Plenty of time.
Near the room’s single door lay two men, the first wearing a stained white sheet, and the second dressed in a long, full-sleeve sequin dress topped with a conical iron helmet. This must be the wardrobe department, Bob thought. Noises tumbled into the room, a dull, ambiguous blend of thuds, squeals, crackling, cackling, clopping, pounding, and cheering. Bob vaguely remembered Jenkins saying something about a siesta, or another foreign-sounding word. Must be a hell of a party judging from the two guys passed out by the door and the great puddle of red wine the toga guy was lying in.
Not wanting to wear a dress but preferring it over a toga, which was hardly better than the hospital gown, he discovered that the sequin outfit was a kind of heavy pullover made entirely of interlinked chain rings that would never fit over his shoulders. As he stood deciding, a man came running into the room and crashed into him, knocking both of them to the floor.
“Don’t hurt me,” screamed the newcomer, scrabbling away from Bob. He was short and plump, dressed in a long linen gown and open maroon vest, his wiry black beard hanging over thick gold necklace chains. His face was painted white, with bright rouge across both cheeks and thick blue eye shadow over both eyes. Bob sat equally disorientated.
“No Frank, you,” said the man, “but who? What kind of toga is that?”
“This old thing,” Bob adjusted his gown’s hem. “Who are you? Are you part of the entertainment?”
“Entertainment,” bristled the man, rising to his feet as his voice rose in volume. “Is that what you call this catastrophe of catastrophes, this cosmic cataclysm, this rape of our Golden City.”
“You must be a school teacher,” Bob said, “what’s with the drag thing?”
“This, ‘drag thing’, is a siege, you dolt. As in drag-down-the-walls-and-kill-everyone-inside-siege. As in these two corpses.” He pointed to the bodies by the door. “And I am hardly a school teacher. Does this simple apparel signify such dignity? I am Cosmas, morning overseer of the Valens Aqueduct, the city’s third largest open-air cistern.” Cosmas poked his nose in the air.
“Do all civil servants wear their mom’s clothes to work?”
A loud and ominous crack shook the building, and dust fell from the ceiling.
“We should leave,” Cosmas exclaimed, running. Bob followed Cosmas through a series of tiled rooms, many with waist-high wooden benches. The rumbling grew louder as the pair exited into the street, a narrow alley weaving between yellow sandstone and red brick buildings. The street was full of detritus from the siege, broken bits of property hastily cast aside. A wicker basket lay upended, its contents of green pears split like ripe entrails. A riderless horse galloped past, foamy saliva streaming from its rubbery lips. A hot, sluggish breeze carried a carnal stench, and both men reflexivity cupped hands over nose and mouth. Screams from the left, and the building next door hiccuped, like a brick and mortar giant shifting to one knee, disgorging broken chunks of masonry from its upper stories.
“This way,” Cosmas cried, leading Bob to the right. After a dizzying course of left and right turns spent avoiding falling rubble and passing burning store fronts, Cosmas brought them to small city park. The pair crawled beneath the waxy leaves of a turpentine tree.
“Holy mackerel,” Bob said, “Talk about a welcoming party. No wonder this trip was so cheap.”
“Trip,” Cosmas asked, arching an eyebrow, “Welcome? You are obviously a visitor, but I assumed you had been trapped in the city like the rest of us, unable to leave. How long have you been here?”
“Just got here. Right before you crashed into me.”
“In the masseuse parlor? Is there some secret egress that leads from the parlor outside the walls? Through the sewers perhaps. Yes? We could escape that way.”
“Ah.” Bob remembered Jenkins’ instructions, that he had to be back in the same place for the pickup in two hours. “I mean, yes. I plan to, but . . .”
“You must take me.” Cosmas grabbed Bob’s hand imploringly. “You can’t leave me here. The Franks will surely kill me, or worse. The whole city is dying. Please, I am begging you.”
“OK,” Bob said, “but first you have to lead me to a jewelry shop. I have to pick something up for my girlfriend. A bracelet or something.”
Flabbergasted, Cosmas cried, “Unbelievable! Don’t tell me you came to the city, while it is surrounded by thousands of savage knights who are literally burning it to the ground, to do some shopping.”
“It’s our anniversary.”
“Sweet Christ on the Cross,” Cosmas sighed. “Well, we can’t go to a jewelry shop. The Franks are dragging all the city’s possessions to the church of Saint Sophia. They aren’t leaving anything behind.”
“Oh perfect,” Bob said, “I knew I should have bought the insurance.”
“Insurance of what?”
“Never mind. Now I’m really screwed. What am I going to get her? I’ll never have time to go shopping back home after getting cleaned up from this. A hospital gown might be fine for this place,” he eyed Cosmas’ linen blouse and unbuttoned vest, “but I can’t go to dinner in this.”
“What about a relic,” Cosmas said. “The smaller churches haven’t been looted yet. I’m sure you could locate a small relic for your true love.”
” ‘True love?’, Let’s not go overboard. What’s a relic?”
“A sign of God’s majesty and benevolence. A remnant of a saint possessing miraculous powers.”
“Like a rug?”
“No, not a rug. A remnant. A piece of the saint or something that the saint touched. It’s a holy artifact.”
“What, like his shoes?”
“Yes, but also a saint’s hair, or teeth, or fingers, or . . . ”
“Let me stop you right there, Cosmas,” Bob said. “I am not showing up to a dinner that will cost me as much as this whole trip and to give Sally an old man’s teeth. ‘Here honey, it’s a miracle.’ Miracle if she doesn’t slap me across the face and never want to see me again.”
Angry shouts and jeering laughter wafted by on the singed air. Cosmas and Bob pressed their bodies to the ground. A group of soldiers passed, one carrying a small wooden cask over one shoulder, another drinking from a silver goblet. The lot armed with long spears.
“We must leave,” Cosmas whispered. “Relics are often stored in reliquaries. Gold-enameled and jeweled boxes that contain the sacred item. Perhaps worldly splendor will impress your lady friend, who appears to value the spiritual significance of such a holy collection as much as our city’s invaders,” Cosmas added snidely.
“Maybe. She’s French-Canadian on her mother’s side.”
Cosmas and Bob crawled across the park on hands and knees, and at the far edge Cosmas said, “The House of Akropolites is nearby. A small but distinguished family. The father held a middling position in the army during the wars in Anatolia. I believe that their private chapel contains a relic of Saint Domninus.”
“Well it better be wrapped in a goddam hundred dollar bill,” Bob said. “And then we better be getting back.”
“Yes, the House of Akropolites and then back to the masseuse parlor, if it still stands.”
“Wait. masseuse parlor? That goddam Jenkins. He knows I’ve got a girlfriend. Well, I’ll let him know I don’t appreciate that, either.”
Away from the walls, the buildings were spaced farther apart. The rich citizen’s houses were in the center, columned palaces separated by manicured gardens and sculptured terraces. The House of Akropolites had so far avoided the invaders’ plundering, although judging from the family’s rapid exit the soldiers’ arrival was imminent. Front doors thrown open, servants hustled out carrying paintings, armloads of clothes, vases, and other portable valuables. The obvious patriarch stood on the steps directing traffic, calling for his personal treasure to be removed and exhorting his wife to leave most of her valuables behind. Cosmas and Bob easily slid through the commotion and inside. Almost as if he’d done this before, Cosmas unerringly guided Bob through dinning rooms, drawing rooms, colonnaded gardens, and small private parlors to a small chapel at the far end of the house. On a short mahogany table was a singular ornate box, the size of Bob’s hand, topped with four glittering rubies in each point of a silver cross Above it hung a picture of a wild-haired man with dark eyeliner and wagging jowls wrestling a dog that was foaming at the mouth. Cosmas quickly grabbed the reliquary.
“What’s with the painting?” Bob pointed at the wooden framed icon.
“Saint Domninus is the patron saint of rabid dogs, among other things,” Cosmas said as he was leaving.
“This couldn’t get any better,” Bob said under his breath.
“Son,” called a deep voice from the doorway. Bob turned and saw Cosmas drawn up short, the dour-faced man from the front steps blocking his way.
“Screw you, Dad,” screamed Cosmas, casting aside his bureaucratic airs and diving out the open window.
“Guards,” called Cosmas’ father, his flapping jowls reminiscent of the family’s patron saint. Bob followed his guide out the window, landing in the same thorn bush that Cosmas was busily extracting himself from.
“You didn’t tell me this was your house,” Bob roared, gown caught tight in one of the bush’s forked branches. Cosmas ran. His father leaned out the window and called for reinforcements. Losing the tug of war with the bush and leaving his hospital gown behind, Bob ran after Cosmas. The two fled across the lawn.
“Where are we going?” Bob hollered.
“The masseuse parlor and escape.”
“Well pour on the coal,” Bob cried, thinking that at least he was dressed for a masseuse parlor now.
Mr. Jenkins folded his paper and set it down next to him. Ms. Mordant forked a form from the center of her desk to a open drawer.
“I believe we had better retrieve Mr. Roberts,” Jenkins said. Ms. Mordant efficiently slid shut her drawer and followed Jenkins into the next room. A large operating table sat in the center of the room, whose walls were cramped with second-hand medical equipment, jury-rigged science apparatus, and Mr. Robert’s street clothes piled loosely on a chair. Donning soldering masks, Jenkins set a series of dials and levers while Ms. Mordant coolly punched a series of numbers into a TS-80 calculator wired to a Black and Decker toaster oven.
“And voila,” said Mr. Jenkins, making a final adjustment. “Hold your nose.”
One blinding flash and sizzle of ozone later and Bob and Cosmas appeared on the operating table, limbs intertwined and howling.
“Praise God, a narrow escape,” cried Cosmas.
“You couldn’t cut that any closer, chief,” Bob said.
“I thought you had a girlfriend,” said Ms. Mordant.
The operating table was barely large enough for Bob, and as the two tried to pull apart they both fell off the table and tumbled to the floor. The small, wooden box jumped from Cosmas’ hands, bounced once, and then snapped open, disgorging a flat oval of badly woven hair.
“The Holy Toupee of St Domninus,” said Cosmas.
“It is a rug,” yelled Bob, scrambling to get his hands around Cosmas’ throat.
Jenkins put a thoughtful finger along side his nose and cocked his head.
“And that is why we don’t advertise,” Ms. Mordant said.