Thirty Days to Halloween: Day 3: “The Egyptian Room”

Here’s a humorous short story I wrote to help you celebrate Halloween!

“The Egyptian Room”

  Henry sat at his desk, and as usual, was surrounded by mountains of files and jumbled papers.

Henry, my boss and the owner of Stuart advertising, took off his small round reading glasses and looked up. “What is it, Neil?”

I laid a small package on his cluttered desk. “This is for you, Henry. Beth said today’s your birthday.  For her favorite uncle she said.”

“Well, I’d better be her favorite uncle, since I’m her only uncle. Where is she anyway?”

 “She’s at the Metropolitan Museum finishing up her sketches for the Cleopatra Fragrance campaign. She wants to shoot the perfume commercial there tomorrow night. She thinks the temple in the Egyptian Room ought to do nicely for a set.”

 “Good, good.” With his index finger, Henry slowly spun the package around. “Sit down, Neil. You can watch me open my present.”

 I dragged a chair across the tessellated marble tile floor and sat down. “I think she bought it at the MET’s gift shop,” I said.

 “She always did like that spooky place.” He chuckled, then glanced at the picture of Beth, my girlfriend, hanging as if it were a sacred shrine on the wall behind and above him. “Let’s see what she found this year.”

 Henry studied the package, then cautiously tore the ribbon and paper from the box. He removed the small crystal pyramid inside and set it on his desk.  The pyramid caught a ray of sunlight from the window behind him, and a small rainbow formed within it and I watched the refracted colors slant and shift.

 “Interesting,” Henry said.

 “Henry, if it’s okay, I’m going to leave work now and meet Beth at the museum.”

“Sure,” Henry said. “This Cleopatra campaign is going to make our company a lot of money. If you run into a snag, give me a call. Remember why we’re in this business.”  He pointed to the large plaque on his wall bearing the company slogan: STUART ADVERTISING COMPANY: CHANGING DREAMS INTO REALITY. He stood and walked me to the door. “You and my niece getting along, Neil?  I mean, there’s no problems or anything is there?”

 “No problems. Why?”

. He patted me on the shoulder and nodded. “Just checking.  Sometimes Beth can be a little difficult.”

 I left our office and took a cab to the Met. Beth sat on a stone bench in the Egyptian Room frantically scribbling with her pencil.  As I approached, I heard her mumbling to herself. I maneuvered my way through the small forest of wooden and stone Egyptian statues surrounding her and peeked over her shoulder at her latest sketch.

 When she noticed me, she held up the drawing. “So, do you like?”

 “It’s good, really quite good. Who is it?”

 She sighed. “It’s Cleopatra, the incarnation of Isis.” She nodded toward the statue closest to us. “Come here, I want to show you something.” She grabbed my hand and led me to another section of the Egyptian Room where we stood before a painting of Cleopatra.  Beth stared up at the portrait. “She’s so beautiful!” she said.

“Yeah, she was.”

 “She was a Greek you know.” Beth brushed her hand through her hair and tilted her head sideways. “Don’t you think she looks like me?”

 I studied the Renaissance artist’s representation of Cleopatra, and then shifted my eyes to Beth’s pose. I did see a resemblance–dark hair, the fair skin, voluptuous body, the eyes that could throw sparks across any room.

 “Yes, I do see a resemblance.”

 “I knew it!” She slipped her arm into mine. “Sometimes I think I’m her reincarnation. Let’s walk around for a while and brainstorm more ideas for the campaign.”

 We spent another hour in the Egyptian room looking at the various Roman and Egyptian artifacts, then went into the Egyptian section of the gift shop. I bought Beth a necklace that spelled Cleopatra in ancient Egyptian and several books about Cleopatra.  She bought me a computer program that taught one how to write in hieroglyphics. We divided up the sacks and went out to hail a cab.

 “I guess we need to decide on the actors for the commercial,” I said. “Any ideas?”

 “It would save the company a lot of money if we did the commercial in-house.  So, I’m going to be Cleopatra and you are going to be the Ptolemy who wants to marry her. The slogan we’ll start with will be:  ‘Cleopatra: The fragrance that even a pharaoh couldn’t resist.’”

 “Who was Ptolemy?”

“Her brother. Cleopatra married her brother for a while. The Egyptians did that kind of thing a lot.”

 “Kinky,” I said. “Look, I’ve got to get back to the office. I’ll finish up my paperwork and be home about six.”

*         *         *

WHEN I opened the door to our apartment, a khamsin swept past me.  “Hey, Beth, where are you?” I said.  There was no answer.  I checked the thermostat and turned it down from the desert temperature she had set it on.  I hung my overcoat on the coat rack by the door.  “Beth? Beth!”

 “In here,” a muffled voice replied from the bedroom. I walked in and saw that the room had been rearranged. She had even rolled up the rug.

 “I still don’t see you.”

 Suddenly the carpet began rolling toward me. At my feet, she lay, naked, her arms outstretched. “Julius, mercy! I beg you . . . Show mercy!” She grabbed my legs and with the force of a professional wrestler pulled me to the floor. “Make love to me.”  I was just getting into things when she groaned, “Call me Cleopatra!”

 I did.

 “Oh, Anthony, my Caesar!” she moaned.

 After our little romp on the floor, we moved to the bed, and I did the manly thing and dozed off. I woke later when I heard something moving across the hardwood floor.

“Beth, do you hear something crawling on the floor?”
“That’s just my new pet asp,” she whispered as she wrapped her arms around me and snuggled up to my back.

 “I’m serious. I hear something moving around.” I panicked as I remembered something about Cleopatra and poisonous snakes.

“Don’t be silly. Go back to sleep.”
“I’m going to take a look.” I turned on the reading lamp next to the bad and scanned the room. Beth covered her head with her pillow. I couldn’t see anything on the floor, but now my insomnia had kicked in. “I’m going to get a beer and read a while.”

“Ummm Hmmm,” she mumbled.

 I opened the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of beer. The label was covered with an Arabic script, but there were a few lines in English indicating the beer had been created and bottled in Egypt.

 I said to myself, “I guess you really can find anything you want in New York City.”

 I went to the bookshelf and opened one of our new books about Cleopatra. I read for about half an hour but became depressed when I noticed that the sexually insatiable Cleopatra destroyed every man she shacked up with.  I watched some horror films on television and finished off the two six-packs of beer in the refrigerator and eventually passed out on the couch.

The next day I arrived late at work with a bad hangover and Cleopatra claw marks on my back.  I took the Cleopatra file and laid it on Henry’s desk in front of the miniature pyramid. I couldn’t keep from staring at the pyramid. My mind wandered into it, into its endless maze of false tunnels, and I pictured myself dragging Beth’s stiff body deeper and deeper toward the burial vault. I saw myself toss her body into a stone coffin in the queen’s chamber.  I sealed the sarcophagus and run toward the entrance.  But I’m too late, and I hear the rope cut and the grind of the huge sandstone blocks as they slide down the chutes and seal off my exit. I pound my hands and head in futility against the unmoving wall as the torches burn down to a dim glow. I hear the lid slide off the stone coffin. Beth crawls out and leaps at me. She spins my helpless body round and round, laughing hysterically as she wraps me in strips of linen cloth.  “Mummy dearest,” she cackles.  Now I know that I’m truly cursed and trapped forever in a tomb with the fruitcake Cleopatra Zombie.

 “Hey, are you listening to me?” Henry said.

I woke from my trance. “Sure. Just studying your pyramid.”

“Well, we’re finished here for the day. I guess I’ll see you at the MET later. Beth called and said that she had finished the script and that you two would do the acting for the commercial yourselves. Have you decided on costumes?”

 “Yeah. Beth picked them out. I think she’s going to be Cleopatra and I’m going to be a pharaoh or something. She won’t tell me what my costume looks like.”

. “Oh,” Henry said. “This ought to be good.”

  *.       *.     *

The apartment was hot again when I came in from work and I detected the odor of sandalwood incense. I could also hear some belly dance music in the background. “Jesus, Beth. Why do you keep it so hot in here?”

“The heat will help us get into being Egyptians tonight,” she said. She walked out of the bedroom with a large bag in her hand and gave me a kiss. “We need to get ready for the commercial. I went to the costume shop and picked out our clothes.”

 “So what do I have to wear to be a Ptolemy?”

“Just this kilt.” She sets the sack on the floor and pulled out a linen skirt.

I took the short kilt and held it up. “No underwear? I thought I’d at least have a loincloth.”

 “Silly. The Egyptians didn’t have such things.”  She handed me a pair of sandals and an Egyptian headdress. “Put these on too. Oh, and this.” She stuck a fake goatee up to my chin and nodded. “Yes, that will do fine. Now, go take a look while I dress.”

 I trudged obediently into the hallway and strutted in front of the mirror, and I was surprised at the transformation her costume had worked. For a moment I imagined myself as King Tut or Moses or someone else important in Egyptian history.

 Beth came out of the bedroom wearing a tunic-like robe, a headdress with a snake protruding from her forehead, and a plate-sized necklace that must have cost a fortune. I remembered I had given her my MasterCard last month and shuddered.

“How do I look?” she said as she spun around. That was when I noticed her eyes, lined with green malachite eye shadow. She reminded me of a demented raccoon.

“Let’s eat. I’m starved,” she said.

Beth led me by the hand to the dinner table. Gyrating to the music, she put one hand on my shoulder, leaned over, and lit a small liquid candle floating in a lotus-filled ceramic bowl on the table.  While I waited, hoping dancing girls would appear, Beth filled my plate with the fish, bread, and onions she had prepared for our supper. She filled an alabaster goblet to the brim with beer and set it before me.  Beth picked at her food and watched me eat. She looked so pleased.  I saw a small cone on top of her head. It looked like it was melting because I could see streaks running down her face and neck and bare shoulders.  A wonderful fragrance drifted my way.

“Cleopatra, you’ve got something running down from your head.”

“It’s a perfume cone. Egyptian women wore them. It’s an oil, wax, and perfume mixture. I want every detail to be perfect for the shoot.”

*         *        *

HENRY sent a limo driver to take us to the MET.  As we stepped out of the car, Beth held out her hand in a queenly pose. “Walk me to my temple, Brother,” she said in a deeper voice than I remember her ever using. “I asked Uncle Henry to send us four strong men and a litter to carry us inside.” She sighed. “I guess he forgot.”

I took her hand and we ascended the museum steps between two lines of gawking people. The driver held out his arms and motioned the commoners back to a respectful distance.

After we entered the museum, Beth and I stationed ourselves near the entrance of the stone temple archaeologists had excavated from the water and silt of the Nile and reconstructed in the MET.  As the technicians set up the cameras, lights, sound system, and painted flats of desert scenery, the commercial’s director came over and made us practice our lines and blocking.

After the director left, Beth said, “I need to check my makeup.” She patted the face of one of the statues. “You behave yourself.”

 “I will,” I said.

“You too,” she said. She winked at me, giggled, and headed for the restroom.

 I leaned against one of the temple’s stone columns, touched its cool, rough surface, and studied the wood and stone forms of the statues assembled around me.  Most of the Egyptian gods were there.  A cold draft of air swept up my bare legs and suddenly my heavily oiled body craved the heat of our apartment. I closed my eyes and imagined myself transported back in time, back to the world of Cleopatra, the transmigration of my soul taking me back to the Nile valley, back to where it all began, and I felt myself dissolving into the past. I opened my eyes and looked into the faces of the gods about me. Into the Eye of Horus, then into the eyes of the goddess Nut who is the night, her body sprawled across the star-spangled Egyptian night sky, and I saw her elegant limbs bridge the flat Egyptian horizon as she gave birth to the dawn.  I heard voices, voices speaking to me. To me! Then I realized that the voices were coming from the statues. What did you say? Yes, Osirus. Oh, yes, master. I understand perfectly.  I am the incarnation of Ra! I am a god! And look, there comes Isis with my Cleopatra!