The Lamp and Urn - A Short Fiction
“This Mall is lonely. Maybe it’s because someone plopped him down in the middle of dark grey asphalt with no other buildings to talk to.” She suddenly turns to the rather sleazy looking man who sat down beside her and asks: “What do you think, Pops?” His eyes are suddenly locked with hers, which halts his sneaky approach. He then gets up and leaves. She smiles to herself. “Crazy eyes - works every time.” Her smile fades as she looks at the empty space beside her. That malls and loneliness are both on the mind of a sixteen year old girl is not surprising.
She has been sitting on this bench for most of the morning, keeping tabs on a peculiar shop. There is no display of merchandise, no food, no visible employees, and no customers. The only thing in it is a table, a chair, and a wastebasket. All are incredibly beautiful; but, understated.
Meg watches as people walk past the curved, seamless glass store front. They barely glance inside, oblivious to the quite beauty of this establishment. As her curiosity grows, Meg pulls out her tablet and writes in her journal: “What a strange place. Maybe it’s an office of some sort. They certainly don’t have a lot of customers.”
She pauses, then walks into the shop and writes another entry: “The place is designed around shape of an oval. The flooring of the store is white polished marble ovals set in terrazzo. The gold flecks and veins weave a nice pattern. The back half of the curved wall is formed from vertical light colored wood strips. The front half is curved seamless glass. How did they make that? Etched into the glass is the phrase: The Lamp and Urn. The ceiling is made from smooth plaster with indirect lighting. One blond wood table, one chair, and one wastebasket are the only furniture in the room. They are all gorgeous. Even the opening to the back chamber is oval, long side perpendicular to the floor.”
A woman voice states: “I hate malls. They are so unnatural.” A crumpled piece of paper arches out of the oval doorway and sails through the air in a perfect parabola, gracefully falling through the oval rim of the wastebasket.
Meg quickly retreats back to her bench. She writes: “Someone does work there.” An assumption on her part, but you cannot expect teenagers to think clearly. Meg happens to be correct. Her assumptions are correct more often than they should be.
A man wearing a tailored suit pushes through the noon shoppers, leaving a trail of dirty looks and rude gestures. He enters the shop and the glass closes behind him. Meg writes: “First person I have seen notice the place. I get the impression that the suit is the only thing holding that man together. I am not sure I like the clientele. (Note to self: Look up the word clientele.)”
She stops writing and watches as the man plops down into the chair, opens his briefcase, and lays a folded black cloth on the table. When he unfolds the cloth, three large sapphires sparkle in the light. He mops his head with a handkerchief and waits. He creates a symphony of small movements in time with a hidden metronome. Eventually, the darkness inside the oval opening stirs and a woman emerges.
Meg writes: “She is beautiful.” Then she snaps a picture with her tablet.
The woman’s white dress covers everything; but leaves no doubt that she is female. The color of the dress highlights her olive skin. An oval face, framed by long dark hair, dark eyes, and a strong nose radiate a sense of power. The gold circlet on she is wearing holds a small sapphire on her forehead. She places an envelope, sealed with wax, on the table and steps back into the darkness.
Two sapphires remain on the table. The man quickly wraps up the remaining jewels, pockets the envelope and quickly leaves. Several people separate from the crowd and follow him.
Meg writes in her journal: “I bet no one forgets her birthday.”
Meg sits restlessly on the bench for a few minutes, and then she gets up and enters the store. “Hello? What is this place? It’s gorgeous. Come on, I know you are here.” The glass closes again. It is so quite that I doubt Meg notices.
A man’s voice answers: “Thank you. This is my waiting room.” Meg says: “You’re welcome.” She frowns. “Waiting room?”
The voice responds: “This is where people wait for my answers, or tea. It really depends on who is waiting. It’s really good tea, but few people seem to want tea these days.” Meg thinks a moment “Answers? Your customers are buying answers?” The voice responds: “Clients, not customers. You might say I am a kind of Oracle. Please don’t compare me to a fortune teller, I don’t tell people what they want to hear.” There is the sound of metal clinking coming from the opening. “Child are you looking for tea or answers?”
At this point a sensible adult would have asked about the future, if they believe in Oracles, or leave if they don’t. Meg is a cynic and not quite grown up. She asks “Is the tea really that good?” The striking woman emerges from the darkness and sets another chair at the table. A young girl follows carrying a gleaming silver tea set and places it on the table - with the help of the woman. The child curtsies and hides behind the woman, who says, “He will be with you in a moment. The tea is really that good and he likes to show off.” The woman picks up the girl and carries her back through the opening. The girl sticks out her tongue at Meg. Meg does the same to the girl.
A man appears and sits down. He looks like he is in his sixties, except he moves like an athlete in his prime. He is dressed in a white linen suit, perfectly tailored. He studies Meg over the tea set. Meg just smiles at him.
The man nods, like he has made some decision. “How do you like your tea? Sugar? Cream or lemon?” He pours two cups of tea, cream first, and they enjoy a moment of savoring the tea. It has dawned on Meg that she might be in over her head. “I am not sure I can afford this.” The old man smiles and says: “First, you could easily afford the price of my tea. Second, you are a guest, not a client; so I am not charging you; however, you are clearly looking for something. Perhaps I could help, if you don’t mind.”
Meg frowns and asks: “How do you know my name?” The old man smiles and answers: “I have heard your friends talking to you. You all spend way too much time in this mall. It is none of my business, but I don’t think that they are very good friends.” A tear slowly forms on Meg’s face. The old man offers Meg a clean handkerchief and waits till she is finished crying.
Meg says: “Sorry about that. I guess I am tired of being forgotten. What is your name?” “Diogenes.” Meg looks amused: “That Greek guy looking for an honest man? Have you found one?”
The man laughs. “I am not that old. Oh, my parents named me that in hopes that I would follow them in the family business. I am afraid I have disappointed them. Still, I have found many honest men and women. There are a lot more of them around than people realize. The real problem in finding honest people is that almost everyone avoids them. They are boring if they don’t talk, or they are annoying when they do talk.”
“I understand how silence can be boring; but, how can honesty be annoying?”
The old man looks at the bottom of his tea cup for a few seconds and raises his eyebrows. He answers: “Meg in my line of business, no matter what the truth is I cannot afford to directly tell anyone something they don’t want to hear. They get upset and refuse to believe me or pay. I have to give them a cryptic answer that leads them to it. That’s why I normally just write out a riddle. Seems to work, but it does not make sense.”
“Oh I see. No one wants to actually hear the truth. I suppose I knew that.”
Diogenes smiles and looks at his pocket watch. I have really enjoyed your company, but my break is over and I need to get back to work. He frowns for a brief moment and looks at the tea cup one more time. “Meg, do me a favor when you leave this room. Go left instead of right.”
Meg laughs: “Ooookay. You are a little strange.” Diogenes reply: “Actually, I am more than a little strange; but, it would mean a lot to me if you would go left.
Meg leaves the room and turns left. She walks past a chocolate shop with a help wanted sign. “Why not?” She walks in and introduces herself to the owner.
Ten years flow by.
Meg parks her car in the empty mall parking lot. She gets out. She is wearing a white business suit, perfectly tailored and black flats. She removes a large case from the car and heads into the mall, which despite the empty parking lot, is still in business. She stops and stares at the deserted chocolate shop. The mall is cared for, but the place has a forgotten feel about it.
A man in a tailored suit walks toward her, the same man she saw enter The Lamp and Urn ten years ago. He is now using a cane and walks with a pronounced limp. His face appears more relaxed and his manners have improved a great deal. She asks him “How are you doing?” He stops and talks for a little while. Age and life taught him some valuable lessons, a few of which he shared with this strange and beautiful woman who took some time to listen to him.
She approaches. “It looks just like I remember. No, the wood is darker. I suppose that is what wood is supposed to do.” Meg walks into the store and sits down.
The same woman walks out. She is unchanged. Meg says, “Hello Diana, I brought something for Diogenes and you.” The woman nods and goes into the back.
Meg places her case on the table and opens it. Fog rises as the cold air in the case mixes with the room’s air. She pulls out three crystal wine glasses and sets them on the table. They sparkle much like the sapphires did 10 years ago. Then she removes a wine bottle and adroitly removes the cork. She pours a golden wine into each glass. Water drops form on the outside of the crystal.
The woman returns pushing a wheelchair. Time has not been kind to Diogenes; yet, he seems to be more relaxed. He smiles at the sight of Meg and speaks “I was hoping it would be you.” He wheels up to the table.
Meg hands them both a glass of wine. “Let’s just enjoy the wine for a while.” The three go through the ritual of looking, smelling, and drinking. The woman says quietly, “It reminds me of my childhood. I remember the smell of earth as I played in our vineyard while the servants worked on the vines.”
Diogenes starts to snore.
The woman looks fondly at the sleeping man. “He gets weaker every day. All you mortals do.” She looks at Meg. “He never was really an Oracle, you know. Men cannot handle the vapor. He was a auger - roll the bones or read the tea leaves.” The woman pours another glass of wine for herself and Meg. “I love this wine. Come on, help me with Diogenes. Then we can talk.”
They wheel him into the back. It’s a break room with a computer and a small kitchen. Meg says, “I have never been back here before. I was expecting something else.” The woman smiles and opens a door to Diogenes’ Spartan apartment. The two women help him get into bed. They go back into the break room.
Over the last of the wine Meg says “You know people still overlook me. I don’t talk much and well some things never change. What would have happened if I had turned to the right?” Diana cocks her head to the left, “You would have brought red wine today instead of white. He hates the tannins in red wine. Your path back here would have been different, but that is all I know. You always came back for the tea. It has meant a lot to him; and, I appreciate it too.”
Meg takes another sip of the wine. “What did he mean when he said “I was hoping it would be you.” Meg locks eyes with Diana. Diana takes a deep breath. “Meg, Diogenes is dying. Don’t give me that look. You know I can’t keep mortals alive forever. Diogenes has a year left.”
Meg voice is very deliberate, barely holding together, “You haven’t answered my question.” Diana sets down the wine glass. It is half full. “He was praying that it would be you that accepts my offer.”
“If I take it, will I get to spend time with him?”
“Of course. It only takes a week to learn what you need to know; and the rest of the time is yours. I only ask that you let him work for as long as he is willing. His mind is still sharp and he will fade away if he is not active.” Diana takes a sip of wine. “It will be nice to have an Oracle for a change; but, we will have to find a new place.”
A year later, in a downtown that could be anywhere, a man with a pronounced limp and a tailored suits walks toward a renovated warehouse. The sound of the cane tapping the ground echoes off of the walls of other recently renovated buildings.
He stops at a door. A limestone plaque is set into the wall next to the door. “The Lamp and Urn – Winery” is carved into it. The man walks through the door, past racks of wine, and beams of light from high windows. He comes to an opening where a carved wooden table and chair surrounded by racks of wine. Overlooking the table is an oil painting depicting an older man. There are vases on the end cap of each rack, each vase depicting a scene from ancient Greece or Rome.
A woman’s voice drifts from the rack, “It’s good to see you again. The sacrifice for the Oracle’s advice is the same; but, if you want wine, she only requests a story from your life.” Diana emerges from the darkness. The man’s eyes go wide. He bows and says, “I will take the wine, Goddess.” Diana says “I will join you, if you don’t mind.” A pop echoes in the room and Meg is pouring golden wine into glasses. Other people emerge from the racks. While everyone is laughing and talking among themselves, Diana remembers what it was like when her temples were full.