"So, listen, I cant keep calling you sister if we're going out to dinner together, can I? Havent you got like a name or something?"
We were just leaving the Spui behind us, following the tram tracks away from the direction of the Nova Hotel. The city must have been interesting, I guess, but who was interested? Not me. I was interested in the very pretty girl at my side, and, if you could see her, I know youd understand.
"No, dont call me sister," she agreed. "My names Yet. Yet Schilders."
"Yet?" I repeated.
"You mean like Y-e-t, Yet?"
Her smile turned surprised. "No, no. Yay-e-t."
This was rapidly getting beyond me. "Yay, E.T.? Whats that supposed to be, three cheers for the aliens?"
It took her a second to get it, but she did get it, and groaned, then realized her original mistake and colored a bit. "Not yay," she said. "Djay."
"Oh, J! And in Dutch you pronounce it like a Y?"
She nodded. We were walking along a canal past some buildings, but dont ask me for details.
"My names Jack," I said. "Jack Farmer. Youre not going to call me Yack, are you?"
She giggled. "In Holland, a jack" she pronounced it "yak" and fingered the cloth of my windbreaker "is one of these, not a name for a person."
"A jacket, yeah. And in America, a jet" I said it "jet" and pointed at the contrail a miniature airliner was drawing across the sky far above us "is one of those, and not a "
" not a name for a person." She finished the sentence before I could, laughing. I was liking her a lot. "We call those straaljagers." She shaded her eyes and watched the speck of plane pull its white smoke along behind it. "Its a nice word, I think. Straal-jager. It means sunbeam chaser."
"Sunbeam chaser. That is nice. So, listen, how about if I call you Yet and you call me Jack? Will that work?"
"That sounds fine. Hello, Jack." She touched my hand briefly which, oddly enough, was exactly what I was hoping shed do. Some people would call that a coincidence. I call it communication, and I double dare you to prove it isnt. "So, Jack," she said, "what kind of food do you want to eat?"
* * *
The waiter set a metal warming tray in the middle of our table and lit the pair of small round candles in its base, then went away and came back with enough food for a family of six. He was a dapper little Oriental in a spiffy tux, and he spread about 25 bowls filled with assorted colors of stuff I couldnt put names to in front of us like it was the most normal thing in the world. Maybe it is, in Holland. But I was impressed enough to tear my eyes away from Jet and let her tell me what was what.
The various bowls of brown stuff were different kinds of meat, most of them smothered in pindasaus which translates into English as peanut sauce and tastes a lot better than it sounds. The yellow stuff was a spicy cole slaw, and the crispy tan stuff was a giant shrimp cracker called kroepoek, and the white stuff was shredded coconut, and the stuff that looked like chicken and shish kebab and peanuts was chicken and shish kebab and peanuts. Jet called the shish kebab saté, and it too turned out to be yummy drenched in pindasaus.
Id told her I wanted to try a really typical Dutch meal, and shed beamed and said that meant we had to go to a Chinese restaurant and order off the Indonesian menu. While I was working that out, she took my arm and led me out of the sunlight into a shaded neighborhood of narrow one-way streets lined with houses that seemed shabbier than any Id seen so far. This was the famous red-light district, she informed me, and I was as freaked out by the scenery outside Kwong Mings as I was by the pagodas and dragons and intricate fake-jade and fake-ivory carvings that decorated the inside.
I mean, Id heard Amsterdams night life was pretty hot, but the red-light district went beyond what Id expected. Just about every other structure was a sex club, with big plastic signs out front showing silhouetted couples doing it in an assortment of positions that ranged from the merely bizarre to the anatomically impossible, under headlines like NONSTOP HARDCORE LIFE SHOW and REAL LIVE FUCKY FUCKY. Then there were the porno movies, and the shop windows crammed full of vibrators and leather goods and candles shaped like erect phalluses, dozens and dozens of magazines with interchangeable cover pictures and such titles (all in English) as Split Beavers and High School Pussy and Deviate Thrills, inflatable plastic teenage girls with wide-open hungry mouths, pills and creams and lotions and sprays that advertised themselves as "potency extenders," Ben Wa balls and French ticklers and a really astonishing range of dildoes in every conceivable length and longer. Lots longer.
Id never actually seen a dildo before. Id never seen any of this junk before. Its all available back where I come from, Im sure, but they keep it hidden away behind painted-out windows so the kids dont have to look at it and it doesnt scare the horses. Here in Amsterdam, though, the governing philosophy seemed to be, "Thou shalt let it all hang out."
Speaking of which, the part that knocked me out the most was the meat markets. Everywhere we walked, scattered amongst the clubs and shops and movie houses and bars and Chinese restaurants were these big picture windows with honest-to-God red lights hanging above them and these teeny little roomlets behind them. Each room sported a sagging camp bed and a sink and a towel, and most of them held a bored female on a stool by the window, doing a crossword puzzle or knitting or reading a paperback novel. They came in all ages and shapes and sizes and colors and stages of undress, from emaciated girls of 16 with glazed eyes and needle tracks on the insides of their elbows to big fat mammas in their forties who licked their lips and jiggled their massive breasts in a grotesque mockery of sexual enticement as we strolled by. By the time wed passed our fiftieth red light, the phrase "window shopping" had taken on a whole new meaning for me.
Jet whod grown up in this city took it all in her stride, but I kept going "Jesus, look at that!" every time we turned a corner. It wasnt until we were settled in the restaurant with cold beers in front of us that I was able to get my mind out of the gutter, off the meaningless sex of the red-light district and back where it belonged: on the lovely blond nurse sitting across from me and, okay, I admit it, on the deeply meaningful sex our surroundings had me dying to have with her.
"So whats a nice Dutch girl like you doing in a perverted place like Amsterdam?" I said. If Id been around in the 1930s, Idve probably been writing snappy dialogue for the movies instead of going into the history biz.
"You look good with a white mustache," Jet said. "Distinguished. Older."
"Older?" I set down my glass and wiped foam from my lip. "Ill bet Im older than you are. How old are you?"
She hesitated a moment before admitting to 24.
"Hmmm. Me, too. When are you going to be 25?"
"Ha, gotcha!" I pointed a thumb at my chest and smirked. "September 13th. I am older than you are."
"September?" She sipped beer. "That makes you a virgin, doesn't it?"
"A virgin?" I was about to defend my manhood when I got it. "Oh, a Virgo. Yeah, thats me." I put my elbows on the table and lowered my voice. "Dont say that other word in this part of town, though, okay? You could give a guy a bad reputation."
Then the waiter showed up with our warming tray and our food, and we ordered more beer and downshifted from talking into eating.
I dont know how we did it, but we polished off almost the entire rijsttafel between us. Rijsttafel, Jet told me, means "rice table," although shed ordered ours with thick seasoned noodles called bami instead of rice. Once a month, she said, when she was in nursing school in Amstelveen, shed come into one of Amsterdams 400 Chinese restaurants with the four other girls in her study group and split a rice table for three people five ways. Wed ordered the two-person meal, and left over less than they used to. I guess I really was hungry and Jet packed away a pretty healthy share of cuisine herself.
Dessert was pisang goreng halved bananas fried in a light batter and dusted with confectioners sugar and sliced apples and oranges in syrup and a big pot of jasmine tea. Delicious.
And when we were finally ready to leave, just after nine wed been in there for more than three hours! the bill came to something like $30, and Jet said that included sales tax and a tip! With prices that reasonable and Jet apparently enjoying my company as much as I was enjoying hers, I was having trouble coming up with one good reason not to spend the entire summer in the Netherlands.
She tried to pay half the check, but I wouldnt let her. When she insisted, I got sneaky and told her there was no way in the world that the rijsttafel wasnt going to be my treat, but Id be happy to let her buy me dinner tomorrow night, if she wanted to.
She leaned back and folded her arms, which did very attractive things to the shape of her leotard. "I dont know how Mevrouw Moen would feel about my going out two nights in a row," she said seriously.
I poured the last of the tea into our cups. "Shes a real slave driver, huh?"
Jet sighed. "Well, she is, really, but its not that. I live there with her, so Im on call 24 hours a day if she needs me, but her condition is stable and I wind up with a lot of time to myself."
"Whats wrong with her, anyway?"
She pulled back her hair with both hands and stretched. That, too, did things to her shape that would have made her a hit behind any window in town. "Its a combination of things. Her heart, mostly. Her legs. And zuikerziekte what do you call that in English? Sugar sickness?"
"Yes, thats it. Diabetes. She doesnt look too bad, for her age, but shes really quite ill."
"And you dont like to leave her alone," I concluded.
"No, no." She toyed with her cup. The tea was cold, by now, and not worth drinking. "I like to leave her alone. Shes not an easy woman to get along with. She just sits in that window all day, minding everybody elses business and complaining."
"She has friends, though," I said, remembering the hen party that afternoon.
Jet frowned. "Theyre not really friends, Jack. Mevrouw Antonie is so sweet, shed visit Attila the Hun if he was laid up in bed. And Mevrouw Boonstra only comes because Mevrouw Antonie does; theyre very close. I dont know why Mevrouw de Klerk was there today. Shes never been to the house before, that I know of. I dont think Ive ever even seen her before; shes supposed to be a real hermit. But this afternoon she just showed up at the door actually, I think Mevrouw Moen called her and asked her to come, but she didnt tell me why. Mevrouw Antonie and Mevrouw Boonstra got there 10 minutes later, but I dont know what they were doing there, either. They usually come by during the week; I think today was the first time theyve been there on a Sunday."
"Uh-huh." I had my chin on my hands, and I was watching her turn her cup around on its saucer. "So what about dinner tomorrow night?"
She looked up at me, then, and the overhead lighting set reflected diamonds in with the sapphires.
"Id like to, Jack," she said. "Its just oh, I dont know how to explain it. I just finished school last December, and this is my first case. Ive only been there four months. I think itd be easier if she treated me nicer, but, since she doesnt "
I got the idea she wasnt going to finish the sentence, so I did it for her: " you feel guilty about leaving her."
She nodded unhappily. "I know its silly, but "
"Its not silly. I understand. Listen, do you want to get back there?"
She pushed away her cup and saucer decisively. "No, I dont. I want to walk around with you and talk some more. Im just not sure about tomorrow night, thats all. Ill have to think about it."
So we walked around and talked, and we hit a couple quiet, smoky bars and drank a couple more beers and talked some more. Jet herself was a nonsmoker, praise be, and I chalked up another point in her favor.
It was well after eleven by the time we got back to the Begijnhof, and I was really beginning to flag.
Still, I made it to the outer door of the time tunnel a step ahead of her and reached to open it for her with all the gallantry I could muster.
It wouldnt budge.
"I thought this door was supposed to be unlocked," I protested.
"Not at night. The ladies would have a fit. Theres a caretaker who comes around at nine and locks it. Didnt Mr. Rombach give you a key?"
"Henk Kleijwegt," I remembered. "Yeah, I met him. He seemed about as friendly as your boss and Mrs. de Klerk." I dug Gerrit Rombachs keyring from my pocket, and Jet helped me find the one that fit the wooden door.
It was incredibly peaceful in the courtyard. Jets house and most of the others were dark, and the only illumination came from the old-style street lamps, whichd been converted from gas to electric, and the gibbous moon that hung above the chestnuts. The contrast between inside and outside between the noise and bustle of a city that didnt seem to realize it was late Sunday night and the gentle serenity of a lazy country village was overpowering. I liked what Id seen of Amsterdam so far, but I liked it in here a lot better.
I walked Jet to #33, through the gate in the picket fence and up to her doorstep.
"Its been a lovely evening," she said, standing close to me in the moonlight. "Thank you."
"My pleasure," I said. "Youre welcome. Thank you."
I held out my hand, and she took it in both of hers and went up on her tiptoes and kissed me. It was a short kiss, but a warm one, and so unexpected it left me dazed.
"I usually take a walk while Mevrouw Moen has her lunch," Jet said softly. "Would you like to go with me tomorrow?"
"Yeah," I said, "a walk sounds great."
"Ill come by and pick you up around noon, okay?"
"Around noon. Sure." She was still holding my hand. "Ill be looking forward to it."
"Me, too." She let go of me, then, and found her key. "Id better go up and make sure shes sleeping comfortably. Goodnight, Jack."
"Goodnight," I said.
And then I was alone, gazing blankly at the dark-green door.
A week ago, Id been back in Ann Arbor, cramming for final exams and wondering what to do with my summer and now, one measly week later, here I was in Heaven, livin right next door to an angel.
I might have stood there all night, if it hadnt been for the scream.
It was Jet who was screaming, and her shrill voice ripped the tranquil night to tatters.
The door was locked, but the knob rattled loosely in my hand, and one good shoulder-block was all it took to spring it. I pounded up the narrow stairs three at a time and found her in the old ladys bedroom, beside the bed.
The lights were out and the room was dim, but the moonlight that filtered in through the gauzy white curtains was enough to show me the kitchen knife clutched tightly in Jets right hand. The blade and Mrs. Moens pale nightgown were black with blood.
"Oh, shit," I breathed.
It was not, perhaps, quite as snappy as my usual patter, but it was all I could think of at the moment, so I said it again.
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