My Winter With Stanley

My name is Maisie Day and people will tell me anything.

My mother calls it “the gift of openness”.  Anyone, whether I know them or not, will tell me any truth about themselves, whether I ask them or not. And I rarely ask. This sort of thing is fine with family and close friends, awkward and uncomfortable with acquaintances and coworkers, and down right terrifying and boggling with strangers. It’s a bus, not a confessional.

My mother calls it a gift; I call it a pain in the ass. Mom has repeatedly lectured me on using my power for good. I think she meant that I should become a therapist or a journalist or an interrogator. Expose the truth, catch bad guys, help people.

I don’t think she meant for me to become a writer and use what people freely tell me as fodder for stories. I think she’d call that exploitation. I call it my fee, the price someone pays for assaulting me with their life against my will. It’s not like I’m getting rich off of it; just making a living.

Some people may argue that it’s not very creative, that it’s lazy writing. Believe me, it takes a lot of creativity and work to make reality believable enough for fiction.

There’s a place I go when the idea pit is running dry or I’m in need of some stimulation. It’s an out of the way, yet busy café buried in LA, not too far from my apartment. I take a notebook, get a tea, grab a table, and just soak myself in the human experience.

One particularly busy day, I found myself setting my tea down on the last available table, one outside with a green and white umbrella to shield me from the winter glare. I doodled and scribbled, catching bits of conversation, interesting fashion choices, appalling social rituals.

I was just finishing an amazingly childish drawing of an ice cream cone when someone cleared their throat to my left. I looked up at the most eye piercing Hawaiian shirt I’d ever seen, bright green with big red parrots everywhere. I looked up to the owner of the monstrosity and found a stick figure with a vulture’s nose, Buddy Holly glasses, and black straw that was supposed to be hair.

“Can I help you?” I asked, knowing he was really beyond my help.

A plastic surgeon and a fashion guru couldn’t fix that mess.

“Would you mind if I sat with you?” the stickman asked. “There’s no tables left. I promise, I won’t bother you.”

He held up a book and an iced coffee.

I shrugged. “Sure.”

Stickman sat down across from me, setting his drink on the glorified patio table.

“My name’s Stanley,” he said. “Stanley Ivanov. There, I’ve identified myself. No worries that I’ll be attacking you later.”

I snorted. “Thanks for that.”

“What’s your name?” He took a sip of his drink.

“Maisie Day.”

Stanley choked, gasped, and snorted.

“Seriously? What kind of a name is that?”

I glared. “It’s my name, thank you.”

“Your parents named you Maisie Day with honest sincerity and no hint of irony.”

“And yours named you Stanley and thought you’d keep your lunch money.”

I picked up my notebook and buried myself in my doodles and snippets, resenting that I had to defend the quality of my name to a guy who could have found work as a badly dressed scarecrow.

Minutes passed in silence and I reabsorbed myself in the scene; I forgot to be angry, forgot Stanley was there.

I jumped when he spoke.

“Can I tell you something?” he asked, leaning forward, book off to one side.

Oh good, I thought. My paycheck.

“Sure,” I said, leaning towards him.

Stanley looked left, then right, then leaned forward even more.

“I’m a vampire.”

I sat back and hoped my face portrayed a look of “you gotta be kidding me”, but instead I probably looked like a stunned carp. In my shock, I said the first thing that came to my mind.

“Well, that explains the shirt. You can’t see yourself in the mirror.”

Stanley laughed, a weird combination of a whinny and a snort.

“Oh no, I can see myself. I’ve just got a weak spot for them.” Stanley smoothed down the front of his shirt. “They’re hideous but fun, like me.”

“I didn’t figure vampires wore anything but black. Or went out in the sun to drink iced coffee and read-” I looked at his paperback “-Nora Roberts.”

Stanley waved a hand dismissively.

“When in Rome.”

“Oh, you’d never have been invited to the orgies wearing that.”

Stanley laughed again. “I know, I know.”

I couldn’t help myself; I leaned towards him again.

He had me hooked. My gift was really paying off now. There was a great story in this.

“Okay, so fess,” I said. “If you’re a vampire, why aren’t you skulking around like Bela Lugosi or one of those weird goth kids that bartends in the dark and drinks his girlfriend’s blood in a basement night club?”

“I don’t like clichés.”

I laughed. “I thought those were the rules.”

“Rules are for other people.”

Stanley sat back and picked up his book, conversation over. I was perplexed; once someone started talking to me, they didn’t stop until all of their guts were on the floor or I cried uncle. I considered the possibility that Stanley was running me up while I drew stick figures with fangs and bad hair.

In the end, I decided it didn’t matter. Amongst the doodles, I jotted down the conversation, making sure to note the arrogance and charm wrapped in the dweeb exterior. Truth or not, a bad Hawaiian shirt was a great disguise for a vampire and excellent material for a book series.

“Maisie, would you like to have dinner with me?”

My pen went wild and my amateur artist’s rendition of Stanley’s Hawaiian shirt was ruined. I forgot he was there. Again.

I looked up at Stanley. He was smiling, but I saw no fangs.

“I’d give you indigestion,” I replied.

“Is that a no?” Stanley asked.

“No, just some warning about putting my neck on the menu,” I said. I shut my notebook. “Where do you want to go?”

Instead of ending up in a morgue with my throat torn out or wandering the night in a flowing white nightgown as one of Stanley’s unholy brides, I joined him at a Hungarian restaurant and we ate our weight in goulash. Stanley didn’t say anything more about his vampire status and I didn’t ask; I wasn’t used to asking

We talked about current life, winter in LA, my work, his collection of atrocious shirts. As it turned out, we had a lot in common, mostly sense of humor and love of sarcasm.

We exchanged phone numbers, parted ways, and I giggled all the way home over a vampire having a cell phone.

I spent most of that LA winter with Stanley. Every conversation, he succumbed to my gift a little more and after every encounter, I wrote it all down.

Stanley seemed to enjoy being a member of the undead.

“As cynical as I can be,” he told me, “I’ve been cursed with a prevailing optimism. It’s so incompatible with a dark life. I was a little bitter at first. Everything was taken away from me. Hopes, dreams, family. But I realized it would be a long, miserable existence living in an emotional basement. I decided to make the best of it. The only ambition I have now is to have a good time.”

Stanley was from Russia and though he had changed his first name repeatedly over time (“You pick names to go with your shirts, don’t you?”), he could never bear to part with his last name.

He had been born, lived, and turned during the 14th century (“You don’t look a day past 15th”) and he’d filled his time by traveling the world, meeting different people, seeing different places, and learning as many languages as he could, perfecting a variety of accents.

At Christmas dinner in my apartment, Stanley and I talked death.

“It’s my understanding that destroying the heart or brain will kill me,” Stanley said. “Doesn’t really make me all that special. That works on everyone.”

“What about garlic, holy water, crosses, and sunlight?” I asked as I passed him the mashed potatoes. Stanley heaped them onto his plate.

“I have no idea,” he said, pouring on the gravy. “I believed in God then and I believe in God now. He’s got a fine sense of humor. A little twisted, but who isn’t?”

He cut up his turkey and dropped the pieces into his gravy lake.

“The sunlight thing is because it’s easier to hunt at night. We may be undead, but we still need our beauty rest. So, if you work third shift, you sleep during the day. And we don’t tan well. If it weren’t for sunscreen, I’d be nothing but an oozing blister. I’ve done a lot to go against the vampire stereotype, but that’s just going too far.”

Stanley added stuffing on top of the floating turkey pieces and gave the mess a good stir.

“I will admit that garlic was good repellent back in the day,” he went on. “Bathing wasn’t what it is today. It’s hard to feed while you’re gagging.”

Aside from casual mentions, Stanley didn’t talk about feeding. He’d talk at length about his travels (“Rome was my favorite. No orgies, but lovely artwork”), how he made his money (“I made some great investments over the years and didn’t lose my ass in the Depression. I also sell stuff on eBay”), and about his family (“One time, my uncle tried to plant a vodka bottle so he could grow a vodka tree. No, he was sober at the time”).

It was a chilly, rainy day in January when he finally went into detail about feeding. We were sitting in lawn chairs, huddled under umbrellas, sharing a six-pack, and watching LA residents unaccustomed to the concept of weather try to drive on the freeway.

“The thing about hunting, about feeding,” he said after a long silence, “is that it’s hard. I don’t mean running someone down and drinking their blood. Okay, I guess that can be hard sometimes. But I mean being conscious of what you’re doing. You don’t lose your mind. You don’t go into some sort of blood-crazed trance. You know exactly what you’re doing the entire time you’re doing it. I’m killing someone so I can live. I’m picking my life over theirs. There’s a lot of guilt involved there. I like people. Some of my best friends have been people and I never killed them.

I prefer to go after bad people, justify my actions by saying I’m doing humanity a favor. But there have been innocent victims. Never children, though. I’ve never been that desperate. But some days, when I look in the mirror, I see the monster from the movies.”

Stanley stared out at the traffic. I wasn’t sure how to comfort him. It’s hard to pat someone on the back and say, “There, there”, over serial homicide and blood drinking.

“You eat food, though. Isn’t that good enough?” I asked.

“If it was, I wouldn’t be having angst,” Stanley said. “But, I cope as best I can.”

I watched some jackass fishtail as he sped around slower moving traffic.

“How?”

Stanley smiled.

“I’ve got a deal with a blood bank,” he said and reached for another can of beer.

“Oh, come on!”

“It’s true! Blood’s got an expiration date you know. The guy there gives it to me instead of throwing it out. For a small fee, of course. I don’t mind if it’s a little past due.”

“And that works?”

“For now.”

I should have been afraid; I was sitting next to a ticking time bomb of sorts. He hadn’t killed any of his friends, but there was always a first time. But, I felt bad for him instead. His sunny life came with a dark shadow.

Two days before spring, sitting at my desk, trying to find an ending to my latest short story (the truth was too outrageous to be plausible), I had my last conversation with Stanley.

“Maisie, I’m afraid I’m going to have to break our plans for the weekend,” he said over the phone. “I’m leaving town.”

“Vampire convention?” I asked.

His laugh was forced.

“No,” he said. “I killed someone last night.”

My brain froze. An image of Stanley, my friend Stanley, with blood spattering his glasses and soaking his favorite Hawaiian shirt, the green one with the parrots, came to mind and scared all my words away.

“I like to get away after I do something like that. Help needy people. Soothe my conscience.

Redeem myself.”

I managed a coherent though.

“But how? Why? I thought you had a blood bank deal,” I said.

Stanley chuckled and it was so bitter.

“I’m not perfect, Maisie. I have my faults. I may be undead, but in the end, I’m still human.”

I wrote down everything Stanley had ever told me, every bit, even that last, sad phone call. But I never used any of it. I put it all away. It was just too painful. I was too involved.

People still ask me if they can tell me something. My gift still works, still pays the bills, but my response has changed.

Now when they ask, I tell them sure as long as they don’t want to tell me they’re a vampire.

There was room for only one in my life.