My friend the spy, Part III

My Friend the Spy is a Great Whatsit serial. It is a true story (save for the author’s pseudonym), told in weekly installations. Part I. Part II.

From last week’s episode: “Anyway,” he went on, “I’m lucky I didn’t end up like the Rosenbergs. Really. I mean, that very easily could have happened to me.”“So, why didn’t it?” I asked, now truly intrigued…

“Because I left!” he barked, as though this was the most obvious thing in the world. “I left New York. I went abroad, to study music. And then, just before the Rosenbergs were arrested, I went to Prague. I changed my name and started a new life.”

“You changed your name?”

“Yes,” he said. “To Iosef Veniaminovich Berg.” He pronounced each name loudly and distinctly, as though announcing a nobleman’s entrance at a ball.

“So, what’s your real name?” I asked.

“Joel Barr,” he said. “That’s the name I was born with. Then I became Joe Berg. Now I’m not sure who I am.” He laughed again, slightly less joyously this time.

“So,” I said, “what should I call you, then? Iosef or Joel? Dr. Berg or Mr. Barr?”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” he replied. “How about ‘sweetheart,’ or ‘darling’? That would be my preference, I think.” His good mood was suddenly restored.

“Then I’ll call you Joel,” I said, before theatrically offering my hand. “Nice to meet you, Joel. You can call me Leeza,” I added, playing on the Russian pronunciation of my name. I was half kidding, but he’d called me that once already – and that was what he would call me from then on.

“Okay, Leeza,” Joel said. “Let’s continue this conversation, but first I need to get a drink. Then it’s time for the quartet to play.” I had forgotten that this was, as Joel had told me earlier on the phone, a “musical salon” evening.

As Joel shuffled over toward the bottles of liquor, I looked around at the scene in his living room. Four chairs, for the musicians, were arranged on one side of the room, and a grand piano stood in a corner. The apartment was vast by Russian standards, but it was decorated with the same boxy, utilitarian furniture that fills apartments from Minsk to Vladivostok. The only truly unusual thing about Joel’s place was the walls: they had been coated entirely in some kind of dried, gluey-looking resin, like a badly restored piece of wood furniture. Somehow, the thick coating had acquired a warm, burnt orange color to it, making the living room feel like a low-rent Amber Room.

I no longer recall the name of the quartet that played that night, but I remember watching the faces of Joel and his guests as the sweet sound of violins filled the apartment. The musicians held everyone rapt, but Joel seemed positively transported, nodding softly in time and clapping vigorously at the end of each piece. He was almost childlike in his delight.

When the music had finished, Joel eagerly began circulating among the crowd, refilling empty glasses and slapping his guests on the back. I wanted to know more about him, but this was clearly not the night for it. I engaged in small talk with a few other guests, then made my way to the small crowd hovering around Joel. By now, the combined effects of alcohol and music had eased the group into an animated hum of conversation. It took a few moments before I could interject.

“I’ve got to go,” I told Joel. “But I want to see you again.”

“Ah, music to my ears!” he crowed. “How do I do it? I’ve already managed to make you fall in love with me! Listen, you’ll have to be careful who you tell – there are a few women here who would scratch your eyes out if they knew you were after me.”

“I’ll be careful,” I promised. “So, when can I see you? I want to hear more of this incredible story of yours.”

“Do you have e-mail?” he asked. “Do you know what that is?” I said that I did, but he had already launched into a detailed explanation. “It’s absolutely fantastic technology. Fantastic. I mean, what an invention! I use it all the time! My friend set up a free account for me. I don’t know how he did it, but it doesn’t work so well sometimes. Of course, I can’t complain because it’s free.” He seemed ready to pursue the thread of this conundrum for a while, but somehow managed to snap back to the matter at hand.

“Anyway,” he said, “I’ll give you my e-mail address, and you send me a message tonight. Then I’ll know you truly love me.”

Paper and pen were produced from somewhere, and I took down Joel’s e-mail address. “I’ll send you a message tonight, I promise,” I told him. “And then we can arrange to have lunch or something.”

“Oh! That reminds me!” he said. “There’s another writer that’s coming to talk to me on Wednesday. Another writer – imagine that! You’ve got competition already! Ha!” He was clearly pleased, though I was not. “Why don’t you come, too, and then I won’t have to repeat myself! Just come here at noon on Wednesday.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll see you then.” I kissed his cheek, then waved to the rest of the group and eased my way to the door.

Outside the apartment, I waited in the dank hallway for the elevator. As it creaked its way up to the ninth floor, I remember thinking I’d better get used to the wait, as I hoped I’d be traveling up to the ninth floor of this particular building many times in the days to come.

Next week: Ted Koppel enters the mix.

7 responses to “My friend the spy, Part III”

  1. Dave says:

    Lisa, this just gets better and better.

  2. MarleyFan says:

    I’ve been out-of-civilization for a week to Elk Camp, and just got back. One of the first things, was to check for part III. While gone, I had taken a Wikipedia article on the Rosenburgs. Here is an interesting article about Joe:
    Looking forward to IV.

  3. MarleyFan says:

    Ok, that Link didn’t come out right. The link (looking forward to IV) will get you to the article, and a photo…

  4. Dave says:

    Remember to close your links with a slash-a tag.

  5. PB says:

    I wish I had been at Elk camp, alas, just Kansas City. I love the eerie description of the walls. There is some literary portent there, a clue to duplicity to come. I don’t believe him. I think he is going to be a bad guy–can’t wait.

  6. yfgewib says:

    I love this site.648142049

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