I haven’t posted one of these for a while. This short bio-fictional piece is part of a series I’m writing under the title Evocations.
Peter Falk Renders Lieutenant Columbo in Charcoal
Well, yeah. It happens all the time. Like paying sales tax: a small percentage added, insignificant and worth more to the greater good than it is to me. They’re fans and they love this thing, this character, I’ve created. The pencil feels curious in my fingers today, an investigative tool, you might say. So, I don’t mind. Say I’m at my Italian butcher’s, see? And Conticelli’s showing me some sexy new veal shanks–fresh from the farm: “You make a killer osso bucco with these, Peter.” The way he says it, I can just about taste the creamy marrow, feel it dissolving like a rich tapenade between the tip of my tongue and the soft palate. Just thinking of it primes my saliva. Now, I’ve been going to Conticelli’s for years. Dean Martin sent me over there. Conticelli, he looks at me and he sees his old customer, his friend, Peter. I don’t know if he’s seen my Lieutenant–he never mentions it and I never ask. Sometimes he invites me back into his office and we have a grappa. Makes it himself. All kinds: blueberry, courant, black cherry, you name it. I call it “a tannic for the soul”–you know, because of the acid. But naturally it’s sweet, too. We talk about our grandkids and bemoan the advancing years and fret about how we’ve reached that age where you start to notice you’re losing your mind a little. Conticelli gives me great recipes, which I try out in my kitchen. I always go back to give him a report on how I did, and sometimes I bring him a sample. He calls me Peter and I call him Lou. I think he believes I’m Italian, and sometimes I do to. Come to think of it, I’ll bet Dean Martin thought I was Italian! He–Conticelli, not Dean–has the most fascinating ears, shaped like miniature wrinkled violas, which look as if they could be played using his sharp eyebrows for bows. The Romans thought ears resembled the handle of a pitcher. A bit of those lines, the shapes in those compelling ears, they’ve smuggled themselves into the raincoat, haven’t they? We savor gracious moments and then I leave, my clean, white paper pillow under my arm, the package stuffed with tender meat tied up expertly with a bow. Then comes the tax, see, because without fail as soon as I’m back out in the street someone will wave and say, “Hey! Lieutenant Columbo!” What are you gonna do? Me, I always say hello because Lieutenant Columbo has been very good to me. I owe just about everything to that guy. Who is that guy? Is it me? There’s a lot of me in him. An uncle or two, maybe. Sometimes they want an autograph, and more often than not I notice how puzzled disappointment shadows their faces when they read the name: “Peter Falk.” I understand. The shy ones snap a photo without even saying hello. The lazy ones use their cell phones–those things take a lousy picture–and just keep walking. And let’s face it, there were times I’d been–how can I put this?–subsumed: more of the Lieutenant in me than me in him. Much more. So what have I got going on here? The Lieutenant is in mid-turn, his famous turn, my famous move, the one that follows the feint, the long preamble of questions either just nibbling at or wholly beside the point, the setup for the question that innocently pierces the heart of the matter and knocks the suspect off balance. He raises his right hand, cigar in his fingers, and the armpit of his raincoat, my raincoat, stretches taut. The cloth appears shiny there. I liked those cigars. What were they called? The ones with the green wrapper? And so when I was buying a copy of Life magazine at the newsstand down the street from the Universal lot; or when I was strolling in assumed anonymity, down Laugavegur in Reykjavík, sounding out the incomprehensible signs in the drab shop windows; or in New York where I once returned in a full beard and dark glasses to see what had become of my father’s old dry cleaners–everywhere I get the “Hey! Columbo!” routine. Am I making a drawing of Lieutenant Columbo? Or is Lieutenant Columbo making a drawing of Peter Falk in Columbo costume? “Lieutenant Columbo, I think it’s my duty to inform you that we’re considering you a person of interest in the disappearance of Peter Falk.” That’s funny. If I’m the killer, does that also make me the killer of the killer? My fingertips have become lubricated with graphite after smudging some thick lines to suggest depth. Feels nice. “Just one more thing, Peter….”