Steve Regal pressed his palm to the copy machine glass. The heat and smell of toner comforted him.
The day before, at the dentist, he’d read in a two-year-old National Geographic a feature on bullfighting in Seville. He’d been waiting for that article for thirty-two years, though he hadn’t known he’d been waiting until he’d actually seen it. It had alerted him to his own impending transformation into a bullfighter; it had made him conscious of his fate.
Now, before the copier, he saw himself as if through the eyes of a spectator at a bullfight. He was dressed, like the matadores in the article’s photos, in the flamboyant traje de luces, the suit of lights. None of his light brown hair showed from under his montera. What if he had a wig of thick, Latin locks? To the waist. No one had ever done that. Or at least no one in the article.
He stood in the center of the ring of dirt that the diligent groundskeepers had wet down so it didn’t stir up dust. His shoes looked like ballet slippers, smooth black, open at the top of the foot to show pink socks that went to his knees. Adrenaline, but adrenaline he could obviously manage, coursed through him and deep in his ear he heard and felt his heart beating. The expectations of a whole people. It would crush some men. Not he.
Bells at the copy shop’s front door, now behind him, jingled. He closed his eyes.
Footsteps. A ding from the service bell on the front counter. A woman’s voice. “Hello! Anyone home?”
A matador must always appear calm; toros can smell fear and will exploit it. Or perhaps that is dogs. No matter.
He made a tight fist. He opened his eyes, turned, and walked to the front. She pressed one hand, like a paperweight, on top of a manila file folder half an inch thick, and rested her other hand on the counter, letting her tennis bracelet bunch against the surface. Her straight, black hair gleamed like a bull’s hide, though she had skin with the smoothness and color of vanilla pudding.
“M’elp you?” he asked.
She slid the folder to him.
“Five bound copies, please. Bound.”
He opened the folder, turned to a page somewhere in the middle and focused on the words “is not inconsistent with the legal regime in other European nations” halfway down. “Research paper?”
“How much?” she asked.
“Depends how many pages.” The pages were numbered. “You’re a lawyer?”
“The pages are numbered,” she said. She leaned over more, toward him, to see the bottom of the sheets as he let them flip by. “Think there’s a hundred and fifty-something.”
“Five cents a page, $3 for binding.” He snapped the papers closed.
“How long? Can I get coffee?” she asked.
She had a cup of coffee on the counter next to her and he could smell it on her breath.
“Couple jobs ahead. Not long.” He stared at her.
“I don’t understand. What does “not long” mean? Should I get coffee?” She was sweating, and starting, just a bit, to stagger, with several banderillas, the colorful, harpoon-pointed sticks, jutting out of her back. Only he could tell.
She smiled, without the true feeling he knew he could inspire in her with a little more time. She looked at his nametag (“Never Stoppy Copy” at the top; “Steve” in large font below that; “Asst. Mgr.” at the bottom), then at his forehead, not his eyes. “Thank you, Steve. I’ll wait.”
He had controlled her. Pause, preen a little for the crowd.
She sat in the third from the left of the orange plastic chairs lined up against the front window. She pulled a magazine from her bag.
National Geographic. Of course. The collision of worlds shocked him–though only for a moment.
In retrospect, he was able to predict that it would all happen like this–the dentist’s office National Geographic foreshadowed the magazine’s later appearance; the theme of paper (magazines; copies) and so on. There was no need to dwell on it. He could expect more occurrences like this. He was now operating in a world parallel to, but separate from, that in which others lived.
Certainly, not only was she his opponent, the toro with which he would do battle, but she was also in the stands, cheering him on, the beautiful daughter of the king, with his curly moustache. At some point during the struggle with the bull, he would look up at her with a rose stem in his mouth, a thorn having bubbled a dense drop of blood on his lower lip. She would inhale and look down at him, at the center of the ring and the universe, and her stomach would warm and she would give herself to the idea that she would spend her life with him. He would deal later with the fact that she was both bull and lover.
He strode to his copier to begin the work. He felt confident. Looking at her, he pulled the document from the folder with a flourish. He brought it to his nose. She read her magazine. He smelled the document loudly. She did not look up.
He dropped the papers in the feeder without watching, sure they would fall properly. They did not. He set them straight.
“Developments in German Securities Law, 2008-2009.” She most certainly was a lawyer, as he’d thought. Such a dry topic. She needed him. He hit the keys of the machine with the very tip of his right index finger. It huffed to work.
In the minutes it took to generate the reproductions, he did not move. He willed his heart rate to slow, his blood to cool and his mind to keep silent. He breathed in a controlled manner.
He brought the finished copies to the binding machine, bound them, and delivered the final product to the front. She still read, legs crossed, one foot swinging back and forth.
He tapped the silver service button, with care; with his strength he was liable to shatter the bell if he didn’t restrain himself. Her head popped up and she looked lost, almost as if she’d woken from a nap. He slid a perfect pile of bound copies on top of the foldered original.
She put her reading in her bag and walked to the counter. She turned pages.
“Great,” she said.
He bowed his head.
She opened her purse and looked into it. “This thing is like my baby.”
“Your baby is in your bag?”
She squinted at him. “The paper. It’s very important to me.”
“Don’t worry about the money,” he said. “It’s my honor.”
She chuckled, as if to confirm that he was joking. Oh, he was not. He did not laugh, but rather closed his eyes and put both hands to his heart. “You are majestic. It is an honor.” He was now speaking with a slight Spanish accent.
She reached out for the pile of papers, as if he might pull them back.
He touched the back of her hand, ever-so-slightly. “Shhh. Do not worry. They are yours,” he said. “You are a splendid creature.” He recognized that they had entered the bullfight’s final episode, the tercio de muerta, the third of death. Ordinarily, he would thrust his sword through the shoulder blades and into the heart, ensuring a fast death. On occasion, though, in recognition of a bull’s extraordinary effort, the matador would let the bull live.
“What the hell are you doing?” she said. She pulled away and snatched the copies. She put them in her bag and zipped it.
His stomach rolled over itself. He knew that it would be years of training before he could fully eliminate emotion from his performances, so this physical response did not cause him concern.
She walked to the door, pushed it. The bells on the door said, “Ole.”
“Creep,” she said, not under her breath.
Of course, he thought. Because the bull does not understand what the fight is about, the context, the history, the beauty. It is the matador who stands in for all of mankind, and for poetry.
Still, he had to admit that he felt the slightest bit, just a twinge, of irritation that she did not even thank him for letting her live. Or for the copies.