Interview with Nero
I do my grocery shopping in the Malibu Ralph's. You meet a better class of person there. Mel Gibson behind dark glasses grabbing tequila. Britney Spears snagging diapers. You could run into anyone in Malibu. Malibu isn't perfect. It's foggy a lot of the time, especially in June, June Gloom is what we call it. It was gloomy when I showed up at Ralph's with my short shopping list. Went through a few carts, looking for one that ran straight, couldn't find one.
He was there just inside the door, hair slicked back, looking like he'd just stepped off one of his old LP covers. I fought my cart's controls, but stubborn as a mule it went straight for him. He smiled like a freshly opened piano.
"Mind the shoes," he said.
I looked at them. Blue suede. Everything was perfect: the sideburns, the Brylcreemed hair, the white high collar glitter jacket, the fake tan, the faintest suggestion of hip rotation. He was the best Elvis impersonator I'd ever seen.
"Sorry," I said, "the cart -"
"My buddy's waiting for you over at fish," he crooned.
He smiled again as if I'd got the joke, brushed past me, heading out into the fog. I watched him go. He had the walk down too. Must have won a lot of contests.
I fought my cart to the fish counter. Someone in a black caftan and red wig was staring at the oysters. He looked like a pregnant woman on steroids. There was no one else around, so this had to be my man. He turned on me.
There was everything in his face, the whole Pandora's box. Triumph and surrender, greed and generosity, kindness and cruelty, lust and innocence. In both the best and the worst senses of the word, it was a dreadful face. His hair, it wasn't a wig, was done in elaborate steps. He had a weightlifter's neck, a Suma wrestler's belly, bare feet. He didn't look like he was carrying a wallet. What kind of a freak was this?
"Haven't had oysters in years." he said in a pleasant, cultured voice with an accent that sounded vaguely Italian. "Used to be able to tell what sea they were plucked from."
"What can I do for you sir?" It was the fishmonger, cheerfully Latino.
"Twenty oysters," the Nero impersonator said over his shoulder.
"Twenty oysters!" crowed the Latino as if this was the winning lottery number. He was obviously used to dealing with freaks. He bagged the oysters, stuck on the price tag.
The Nero impersonator put the oysters in my cart. "We'd better get a move on," he said. "I don't have much time."
"I met Elvis on the way in. He said he was a friend of yours."
"We play together. His voice is a lot like mine, a bit muffled. Oh how I wish we had amplifiers back then! Where's the wine?"
I steered the cart to pet food. I don't come down from the mountain much. My dogs had been living off scraps for days. "I didn't know people were doing Nero," I said.
He looked surprised. "Really? Well they used to. They kept doing me all the time for hundreds of years. You've still got Christians, haven't you?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. We have Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson."
"Well they believe I'm coming back. Go ask them."
I pulled a twenty-pound bag of Purina Tasty Treats off a shelf and heaved it towards the cart. Quick as a cat he moved his oysters out of the way. "What's that stuff?"
"Cerberus will like that."
"You have a dog?" I said.
"Hungry all the time. Got three mouths to feed, you see," he said, nudging me to make sure I got the joke. He squinted nearsightedly down the aisle, he certainly had his Nero details down. "What's next?"
"Live locally?" I asked on the way to canned fish for my anchovies.
"Oh no, just visiting of course. Today's my anniversary. So they let me out as a special treat."
"With Elvis?" I hoped I didn't sound too flippant.
"They let him out all the time. It's by popular demand. The more people want a sighting, the more often they let you out."
Suddenly I felt like pulling his leg. "If you were so popular, how come you had to commit suicide?"
He looked at me as if he'd just found me upside down in his drink. "The prediction, of course. Dawn, June 11. You know all about that. You've written a book about it."
"Couldn't you have gone into hiding? I mean, the very next day-"
"Yes. My lucky star Venus starts moving forward again. Don't you think I knew that? Everybody knew it. That's why they sent the cavalry after me to make sure my evil hour, well, stayed evil. Pity really, the world would have been so different. We would have skipped the Dark Ages altogether."
"But there were some good emperors after you," I said as we approached liquor.
"Of course, like Vespasian and his brats. Dug up the pool of my Golden House and replaced it with the biggest slaughterhouse in history, that Coliseum monstrosity. What a disaster!"
"Talking about the Golden House," I said, as he started examining the wines, holding the bottles up close so he could read the labels. "Isn't that why a lot of people hated you?"
"Nonsense. The plebs loved it. It was my Disneyland. Greece's best statues and paintings. Theaters. I performed there myself. The Senate hated that, thought I was dragging my imperial dignity through the dirt. And the Christians, of course. I kept leading their flock astray. Oh, this Dom Perignon looks interesting," he said, putting two bottles in the cart.
"Talking about the Christians," I said as I found myself a cheap bottle of Chardonnay. "Who burnt Rome, you or them?"
"Them of course. They started the fire on July 19, Rome's unluckiest day, anniversary of the day the Gauls burnt the city."
"You don't think that might have been a coincidence?"
"There's no such thing, wasn't those days, anyway. It's also the morning that Sirius rises again after being consumed by the sun. Death and rebirth. The Phoenix myth. The Christians thought their New Jerusalem would rise up out of the ashes of Rome. I'd just done my first gig in public, a smashing success. That was the last straw."
"So you executed the Christians in the Vatican Gardens."
"Yes, in Caligula's circus. They turned themselves in. Wanted to be martyrs. It was a sure ticket to Paradise, they said."
"What about the cruel ways you did it? Tying naked women to bull's horns, feeding people to beasts."
"Oh boo hoo! Everybody knows those days we did that sort of thing every holiday!"
By this time we were at Fresh Produce. He picked up a lettuce, the tip of his tongue slipping out the corner of his mouth. "Lettuce. I need one of these. Only get fried food down there."
"What about your mother?" I asked, eyeing him as he caressed a bundle of asparagus before gently laying that in the cart as well. "Did you really sleep with her?"
He gave me a look that sent shivers to my shoes. "Absolutely not! Didn't kick my pregnant wife in the stomach either or allow myself to be sodomized by my barman. Those were all roles I played. Periander, you know, tyrant of Corinth, he's the one who kicked his pregnant wife. Played him a lot. Oedipus slept with his mother, that was another one of my favorites. I played female parts too, there were some wonderful ones and I'm really good at weeping. That's where the silly story about the barman comes from.
We were at check out. A black limo with cow horns on the radiator waited outside. "One last question," I said, waiting for my credit card to be approved which took forever because of the Dom Perignon, I suppose. They bagged the groceries and put them back in the cart. "Did you really fiddle while Rome burnt?"
"Of course," he said. "It burnt for nine days. All those old temples going up in smoke, our whole heritage. Very sad. Sad as the burning of Troy. Hadn't slept for days, running around deciding which treasures to sacrifice for fire breaks. On the ninth day I took a breather at the top of Maecenas's tower and sang a requiem for Troy. My ancestor Aeneas was a Trojan, you know. First son of Venus just like I'm the last. Well, good luck with the book. If it sells you might see me around more often."
By the time the register chattered like a greedy chipmunk he was already out the store with his quick, ballet dancer steps. I'm not sure I want to see Nero more often. He didn't even leave me the dog food.