A Bon Vivant’s Dream

          You might think of April in Paris, as the song of that name says, adorned with “chestnuts in blossom” and bursting with the “charm of spring.” But the reality is often closer to T.S. Eliot’s lines, “April is the cruelest month,” wrenching “dull roots” from the “dead land” in a chilly “spring rain” Cold and rainy, bringing barely a harbinger of summer.  I’d take October in Paris over April any day. It has the pleasures of waning summer. Some tourists may still be there, but not in hoards, and the colors are out, the air is clear and fresh, and the gaiety of children frolicking after school in the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens on sunny autumn days brings smiles to your lips and youth to your heart. When Ernest Hemingway complained in his Paris memoir that in October the rains come and the wind beats fallen leaves against the window panes, he was slanting his memories. October in Paris is usually just fine. Never mind the rain that does come in time.

            We had lived in Paris for five years in a flat on the rue de l’Odeon. My wife, Martine, was a journalist, and I was trying to write, what else?—a novel. We loved every minute of our Parisian life—the morning café au lait and croissants down the street in the Carrafour de l’Odeon or elsewhere on the nearby Boulevard Saint Germain, fresh fruits and vegetables from the open market in the rue de Baci, and crisp baguettes from any boulangerie, strolls through the picturesque streets of the left bank, browsing among the book stalls along the Seine, dining at the ubiquitous sidewalk brasseries. Yes, life in Paris was good, especially in the early autumn between the tourist inundation of summer and the long winter nights that begin in mid-afternoon.

            The end of summer also brought the grape harvest and our annual visit to the champagne country, ninety minutes east of Paris. We’d gone there for years, always  staying in the same room of a chateau, now an elegant hotel, on the outskirts of Reims set on a hill with manicured gardens rolling down toward the delicate spires of the sixteenth-century cathedral of Saint Remi rising in the middle distance beyond the garden’s surrounding trees. We’d been told of this chateau by Jacques Sevinchy, an acquaintance who had said it had one of the best restaurants in France, given three stars by the Michelin red guide. And he should know, since he had long been one of the Michelin judges. What a life Jacques led, we often said to him a bit enviously. He lived a bon vivant’s dream, traveling around France, staying in the best hotels, high and low, and dining in the best restaurants, lavish and modest, rating them all as he saw fit. By now Jacques knew many of them like family or friends, whom he nonetheless didn’t hesitate to chastise for disappointing him. He was an especially harsh judge of the most celebrated restaurants. He said their pretensions demanded it. Twirling the impressive curl of his moustache, he could distinguish a dozen types of duckling served in Paris’s oldest restaurant, La Tour d’Argent (from which he had voted to strip one and then two of its three Michelin stars for growing tired and failing to keep pace with the inventiveness of new culinary trends and lighter cuisine); he could question a quenelle at Taillevent for being a gram too heavy; he could tut-tut a truffle soup at Paul Bocuse for being insufficiently earthy; he could fault a pigeon at Alain Ducasse for missing a balance of crispness and succulence; and on and on. But we never heard him murmur a sound of dissatisfactions with the food at the chateau in Reims.

            As it happened, Jacques was staying there when we arrived, completing his latest round of visits to the twenty or so three-star restaurants of France. We had come to know him familiarly after Martine had written an article on the Michelin guides during our first year in Paris and he had graciously, but discreetly, served as a resource and then had equally graciously and discreetly befriended us, despite Martine’s husband being a vulgar American. I know it was Martine’s beauty and elegance that attracted him, but he had always showed me a friendly courtesy and even curiosity about my work.

           We found him this time sitting on the veranda that overlooks the garden. He had just finished his lunch and was sipping champagne and gazing toward Saint Remi. Exchanging surprised greetings, we offered him our usual envious sighs. He smiled, rather wanly, I thought,  and we talked briefly about his latest culinary explorations, which he reported with his customarily sardonic wit about sauces gone awry and waiters gone missing and wines that could fuel machinery, but with somewhat less of his customary panache. Always enjoying his company, we invited him to take a drive with us that afternoon into the countryside to watch the late grape harvest. He declined, pleading a need to finish some work and to take a nap, but he amiably asked us to join him for dinner. That was an invitation we would never refuse. We agreed to meet for champagne in the conservatoire, an airy glass-enclosed space off the dining room overlooking the garden.

            Martine and I left him and, putting off the countryside venture until tomorrow, drove instead into Reims along tree-lined streets that showed off the city in radiant fall colors and that were home to many a champagne maker. We paused at the cathedral of Saint Remi, which always seemed larger and farther away as seen from the terrace of our room at the chateau than it proved to be up close, and then we went on into the old part of the city to visit the historic thirteenth-century cathedral of Notre Dame, where the truce of World War I was signed, and where in an earlier chapel on the site, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. It wore its age well and still overwhelmed with its monumental size, which dwarfs the rest of city from miles away. But it hardly seemed suited to the modern metropolis that has smothered most remnants of Medieval Reims. The cathedral stands as a reminder of an age that had patiently allowed centuries to erect such monuments to the eternal life, unlike the modern city around it born of times when temples of business get built in a hurry and might be torn down in mere decades to make way for new commercial edifices. Here we could see the historical passage from the eternal to the ephemeral.

               We wandered meditatively through the cathedral and browsed the neighborhood searching for traces of long ago. We found some in a few cobbled streets and shadowed alleys, but they were only fugitives from the past. After exploring the “old” city for a while, we got back in the car and headed for local champagneries to sample the finished product of what we would see being harvested the next day. We stopped briefly at Mumm’s stately home to sip some varieties of their signature Cordon Rouge, which Martine found to be a trifle sweet, and we paused at Taittinger’s nondescript tasting room to sample the dry Taittinger brews, more to Martine’s liking, although I enjoyed them both.  Then on to Pommery, a palatial historic establishment just across the boulevard from our chateau. There we descended underground to the massive caves carved through chalky stone and explored the maze of corridors lined with thousands of bottles, each given a quarter turn daily while the champagne ages. After tasting a few of their rather floral styles, we bought a bottle of vintage Pommery to take home. Having sipped about nine champagnes altogether, we were ready to return to our room for a rest before dinner. It had been a fine afternoon, and a suitable prelude to one of the best meals to be had in France, with a man whose esteemed imprimatur vouched for it.

            We arrived in the conservatoire early and sat on a plush period sofa to await our companion for a glass of champagne and to choose our dinner selections from the menus brought by the waiter. While we were absorbing the place, I noticed in the waning daylight outside some workmen unloading a brightly colored object from a truck onto the lawn. As they laid it out, it looked like a carousel canopy, and I wondered if they were preparing for a carnival to celebrate the harvest, or to stage a party for a wealthy guest. I flagged the waiter and asked what was going on in the garden. He glanced outside and replied in softly accented English, “A balloon. Someone arranged it to sail over the countryside tomorrow.” “Nice idea,” I responded and thanked him.

            Jacques arrived moments later, and we toasted the occasion with the featured champagne of the night, a delicate Billicarte-Salmon produced in a village north of Reims. We exchanged reminiscences of previous meetings and summaries of our activities since our last encounter. We told him of our writing and the pleasures of our Paris days, and we probed him for culinary explorations and discoveries. He complied with good stories in his usual charming manner but with, I thought, more than a trace of cynicism. Then, after poring over the menu we ordered dinner, and a few minutes later, the waiter returned to say that our table was ready whenever would care to go in. Finishing our champagne, we followed him into the elegant ersatz Louis XVI dining room, and on through into a more intimate space on the far side matching the conservatoire, although it was not glassed in and had a fireplace at one end. We were led to a table with a nice view of the garden. Dinner unfolded as wonderfully as we had come expect. The salade Pere Girard, mingling greens with morsels of foie gras and lobster lifted us from our seats; the langoustine melted on the tongue; the pigeon with quice sent us soaring; the peach soufflé took us to heaven. And the orchestrated champagnes made us not want to return to earth.

            But for some reason, Jacques did not seem quite as animated as usual or as taken with it all as Martine and I were. He nodded approval and made some notes, and he chatted cordially as always, but the normally contented smile on his face that we liked so much was fleeting. Perhaps he was disappointed with the food after all. Or maybe just tired. Or even bored. But can a bon vivant living a dream suffer boredom, or what the French bewail as ennui?

              When we inquired where he was going from here, he paused and said he was scheduled to go to Burgundy and then Provence. “Ah,” I sighed. “What a life you lead. And driving south from here will be a marvelous trip. The countryside is so beautiful right now.” Then I thought of the balloon.

           I drew their attention to it still being assembled in the garden and turned to Martine. “We should take a balloon from here some time. How lovely that would be, sailing over the champagne country.  Have you ever done that, Jacques?” I asked.

        “Oui. I’ve ridden balloons a few times here and there around France. C’est très jolie. You float over the countryside, above it all but seeing everything in the silence of the sky. You almost feel that you could go on pour toujours sans cesse. (forever without end).” He let his words trail off as though he were losing himself in the thought.

       “Sounds divine,” Martine said.

        “I wish we could go tomorrow,” I put in. “Maybe next time. We could all go together. Would you be interested?” I asked Jacques. He was still kind of lost in thought. Then he looked at me, and for the first time since we had met him yesterday, his eyes appeared to brighten and a happy smile broke across his face.

        “Perhaps,” he said softly.

         The three of us exchanged more reminiscences and reflections through the rest of dinner down to coffee and cognac and the heavenly peach soufflé.  Finally, Martine and I said good night, looking forward to our drive through the country tomorrow and hoping for blue skies. Jacques joined in our hopes and bid us bon nuit with a nice smile. We would see each other again at breakfast before going our separate ways.

         The sun was gleaming when we got up the next morning. Stepping out on our private terrace in the fresh clear air, we were greeted by the spectacle of a resplendent autumn day in the garden of the chateau. The reds of the maples, the oranges of the oaks, the yellows of the locusts all engulfed us in a kaleidoscope of colors framing the spires of Saint Remi. And spread out on the broad green lawn in the center lay the equally colorful hot air balloon being prepared for flight.

           We dressed and descended to the dining room and sat at a table by the window. When Jacques didn’t appear, we concluded he would probably arrive in due course, and we proceeded to order. Then we savored omelets, buttery croissants, and café au lait, while looking out the tall windows to where workmen were now inflating the balloon in the middle of the expansive lawn. Its buoyantly multicolored panes swelled slowly with hot air from the burner. As its folds unfurled, it gradually bobbed off the grass and swayed in the breeze, a gigantic colorful bubble amid the autumn leaves under a clear blue sky, its basket tethered to the ground by a couple of lines and weighted down by bags of sand hefted in by workmen before igniting the burner. Wishing we could take the flight, we watched the workmen finish their job and withdraw. We resumed our breakfast speculating on what had delayed Jacques.

           A few minutes later, Martine pointed outside. “Look!” she said with an urgent tone.

           A workman was racing down the lawn toward the balloon, waving his arms and shouting. The balloon’s basket had been untethered, and someone was tossing bags over the side . The basket was waggling. A pillar of flame was rising brightly from the burner, sending more hot air into the balloon. By the time the workman got there, the balloon had lifted from the ground.  He could not reach it.

          Half a dozen people were now running from the chateau in the direction of the ascending balloon. We signed the check and went out to the garden to see what the commotion was about. The crowd stood helplessly looking upward as the balloon rose above the tree tops and drifted toward the spires of Saint-Remi. A man and woman left them and came back ranting at a manager who had come out of the chateau. While he was trying to calm them, a workman approached from the lawn and handed the manager a thick envelope and a note of some kind, gesturing back to where the balloon had been. The manager read the note aloud and opened the envelope. He drew out what looked to us standing a few yards away like a handful of Euros. He examined the note back and front and shook his head in puzzlement. Then he cast a final look at the departing balloon and invited the animated couple to go with him into the chateau.

          Curious, Martine and I walked over to the workman who had brought the envelope and asked him what had happened. He was still a little agitated, and my French wasn’t good enough to make out all he said, but I gathered that the couple we’d seen had rented the balloon and someone had taken off in it. The workmen had then found an envelope and a note left behind on the ground and had given these to the manager.

         “Qu’en était-il dans l’enveloppe?” (What was in the envelope?), Martine asked.

         “C’etait d’argent” (It was money), he answered.

         “Qu’est-ce que la note disait?” (What did the note say?), she added.

         “Il disait, ‘Veuillez me pardoner. Adieu.’” (It said, ‘Please forgive me. Good-by.’)

         “C’est tout?”  (That’s all?), I prodded.

          He shrugged and said, “Seulement les mots ‘Guides Michelin’ imprime dessus” (Only the words Michelin Guides printed on it).

         “What!?”  I gasped and turned to Martine. “Could it be? Jacques? He never said he could fly a balloon. And why would he go off like that?”

          Spontaneously our eyes focused on the sky beyond the trees at the end of the garden. The balloon, its colors radiant in the morning sun was now floating off over Saint Remi. We watched it go, gently levitating up over the city on a peaceful, inexplicable journey to the champagne countryside, and out of sight.

            I asked the workman how far the balloon could go. He shrugged again and said it could go as far as the air currents could take it until it ran out of fuel. And, if the guy in it knows anything about flying balloons, that could be a very long way. To the Alps anyway or the Mediterranean.

           Martine and I inquired about Jacques at the chateau and learned that he had packed his bags and paid his bill but had left the bags in his room. He was nowhere to be seen.

           “He did it!” I exclaimed. “He’s in the balloon. But why? To where…?”

            Mystified, we decided to make our drive into the countryside as planned, thinking that maybe we would find the balloon on the ground and Jacques seated in a village café, sipping champagne and smiling at his adventure.

           We didn’t find him or the balloon. And in the late afternoon, we returned to the chateau, checked out, and drove back to Paris, talking about the mystery and what Jacques had in mind. Surely he knew what he was doing. But where was he going? Did he fly off to pursue the bon vivant’s dream, or did he do it from ennui?

           A couple of months later, I read in a Paris newspaper that a long-time Michelin judge named Jacques Sevinchy was being replaced. The article gave no explanation except to say that it appears he had curiously disappeared from Reims in a balloon.  His words came back to me: Pour toujours, sans cesse.

On Parole in Aspen

 

Aspen had been a rough and tumble town once, roiling with grizzled silver miners  digging their way to imagined riches. And some had succeeded. Fifteen thousand people lived there by the 1890s. It had culture, too. An opera house and a grand hotel, both built by a founder of Macy’s department store in New York, who had discovered Aspen not long after the miners had. Oscar Wilde had even visited the neighboring town of Leadville teaching the miners aesthetics and galvanizing their spirits with tales of the rambunctious Renaissance artist and silversmith Benvenuto Cellini, stirring them to a barrage of pistol fire in Cellini’s honor. But that Rocky Mountain glory suddenly ended when the country went off silver in 1892, despite William Jennings Bryan’s rousing protest to the Democratic convention of that year about crucifying the country on “a cross of gold.” Aspen pretty much died, like all old west silver towns. Until it came to life again half a century later with the arrival of skiing and an infusion of new money and culture.

Within a few decades, it had become one of the glitziest vacation retreats in the world. Old Victorian houses once teetering toward collapse sold for fortunes, and movers and shakers and movie stars and billionaires erected palaces on the mountain sides and up secluded valleys. In the ski season hotel rooms could practically cost blood, like silver in the old days. And glamorous parties lit the nights. In summer, visitors flooded to outdoor concerts, and the prestigious Aspen Institute drew notables to high-minded seminars and high-powered conferences at its campus on the outskirts of town. This was a place no socialite or celebrity or influence monger could miss out on. A capital of the glitterati and the culturati and the oligarchy and policy makers, all together in a dressed-up old west town surrounded by multi-million dollar mountainside estates.

I had come to be with them.  Well, not really. I had never cared for that kind of scene. But I had been invited to participate in a conference on human rights at the Aspen Institute and figured it would be worthwhile. It was. Still, I found the socializing around the conference wearing thin pretty soon. So, one evening I wandered into town past trendy restaurants and fashionable boutiques and eventually ran across a liquor store that looked like it had been there in times past and had a loyal clientele. I went in and asked a rugged guy if there is an old pub or something like that where locals go for relaxation and conviviality. He answered, “Harold’s.”  It was owned, he told me, by a crusty family who viewed the modern Aspen renaissance with a jaundiced eye, and whose down-town property, worth millions, they clung to defiantly as a haunt for working people who wanted to escape the glitter and the culture that had engulfed the town. Sounded like my kind of place.

I tracked it down on a narrow street a few blocks away tucked into a line of gentrified old commercial buildings. It seemed to have survived the silver mining days and been brushed up like its neighbors during Aspen’s “restoration” but then allowed to decline again into a more fitting rustic state. “Harold’s” read a florescent sign over the door.  Signs for Coors and Budweiser beer blinked in small windows on each side.

I pushed open the creaky door and met a haze of cigarette smoke. It occurred to me that the place could be violating ordinances against smoking in such establishments, but the smoke was a welcome throwback to the past in this ecology-health-culture-celebrity-obsessed town. Inside I paused to take in the scene. No beautiful people here. The bar was lined with the denim- and leather-clad backs of gnarly guys and of a few hearty gals all bellied up to pitchers of beer. Nearby other denizens gathered around pool tables in serious play. I made my way to a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered a pitcher of my own. After scanning my fellow barflies I swiveled to study the room. Many of the faces were lined, the clothes plain, the manners coarsely civil amidst the lively chatter. Workmen with calloused hands, cleaning people carrying the scent of bleach, hotel and restaurant laborers weary after long hours of serving the affluent, rugged ranch hands and other workers from outlying neighborhoods at home in this tavern where they could kick back and drink beer among their fellows who had never been in a movie or made a fortune or read Plato or adored Mozart or worried about global markets or philosophized about human rights. These were earthy people with their own stubborn pride and individuality and attachment to an Aspen of the past. They couldn’t live in the town anymore because real estate, rents, and taxes had climbed too high, but they kept the town and environs running and would come here after work or from their modest homes down the valley or their trailers in a camp on route 28. And here they could share camaraderie and tell tales of the fabled mining town and of their adventures in the mountain life, when they had time to live it.

The sounds of country music emanated from an antique jukebox, alternating between mournful anthems about lonely truck drivers on the road, loyal at heart but hungry for love, and angry songs assailing prissy elites and arrogant authorities. The pool tables lit by bright domed overhead lights changed hands frequently as players took their shots while their luck held then moseyed to a narrow shelf along the wall where their beer awaited. The clicking of pool balls punctuated the rough sociability of the room, and a curse would erupt from time to time when a pool shot went awry.

“Shit! A miscue!” The words burst from a hulking guy with a beard and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words Jiffy Lube as his cue ball made only a light click glancing off his target. How amusing, I thought. The refinement of “miscue,” a tough guy’s curse over a missed shot at the pool table. But that’s exactly what it is isn’t it? A cue that misses. A miscue. And a just cause for a curse.

Tough guys who commit miscues. And tough broads, too. While a few of these women were sprinkled along the bar, a whole bowling team of them surrounded a couple of pool tables. They were on their way, so I overheard, to a tournament at Miracle Bowl down the valley. They had matching leather jackets with metal studs spelling DTOM over an image of a coiled snake. And they had their own bowling balls in bags stamped with that moniker on the floor along the wall beneath the shelf holding pitchers of beer and glasses. I watched while one of them, standing tall with wide shoulders, a pony tail, heavy eye-shadow, tight jeans, and cowboy boots, took a gulp from her glass and then racked up the balls. She made a shot that hit the mark with a sharp ‘crack’ as loud as gun fire. The balls scattered like buck shot. One dropped into a corner pocket, and she cruised coolly around the table, lined up the cue, and smacked another ball into a side pocket. Again, with a surgeon’s precision and a pugilist’s punch, she deftly sent yet another ball down a pocket, then one more. But her next shot fell short. No cursed “miscue” though. She shrugged, ambled to the wall and refilled her glass. A heavy-set companion with her jacket off blew out a lungful of smoke, snuffed out her cigarette, flexed an arm tattoo, stepped up and knocked a ball so hard into a corner pocket that it clattered all the way down to the rack below. She sniffed and swaggered to the next shot, which sent the remaining balls careening around the table, but none into a pocket. “Fuck,” she mumbled and sauntered to her pitcher. One after another the members of the team took their shots with the assurance and muscular bravado of their Don’t-Tread-On-Me-style—which I gathered was the name of the team. Crack. Smack. Clunk. Clatter.  They cleared the table with each pass through the team. I watched them for probably half an hour. Then they polished off their beer, cased their cues, donned their jackets, grabbed their bowling ball bags, called out “Yo!” to the female bartender, who responded with a robust: “Kick ass, girls!” and, with fists punching the air, they passed through the door to the street.

My gaze followed them and then switched to the bartender. She looked as tough as they did. Not large but solid, with a voice like a bellows, a laugh like the mating call of a moose, a full head of fuzzy hair accentuating a face of imposing but not unattractive features that had weathered a lot of seasons and had intimidated many a mountain man. She could fill and top off a batch of mugs and pitchers with perfectly-timed pulls of the taps without a flicker of hesitation while carrying on conversations and sharing jokes with customers. She seemed to know them all. A good-hearted soul who must’ve been here for years. Maybe one of the owners. She could joke and curse and even flirt in her rugged way. But I suspected she brooked no disrespect or rowdiness. She’d refuse to serve and send packing anyone who couldn’t handle their liquor or who misbehaved according to her rules.

“Don’t walk in if you can’t walk out,” one of the signs read above the bar. And another: “Stay out ‘a my face in my place.” And “You fight, you’re taillights.” This was Aspen civility, old style. That didn’t make this a ladies tea room. It was plenty boisterous. Just within the limits of the house and of the hardy hostess at the bar.

While eyeing her, I saw the door swing open and a guy come in, look around, and swagger to a vacant seat at the bar. He was husky but not very tall, unshaven and wearing a plaid shirt and a cowboy hat like many others in the room. The bartender approached him with a pointed look and a casual, “What’ll it be?” He obviously was not a regular. He ordered a pitcher of beer in a gruff voice that carried down to me. She took her time filling the pitcher and delivering it to him. The guy grumbled something and settled into his beer.

I worked on mine while watching more pool players and absorbing the atmosphere, a world away from the new Aspen. I drifted back in time to what the town might have been like in the early days. Yes, there was an opera house and a fancy hotel. But bars like this and the people in them were the real Aspen. The real West. Places that had true stories of real life to tell. Not like those in the opera house. I’d have liked to see it in those days. But would I have wanted to live in such a place? I doubted it. I knew the idea of the old West had more appeal than the reality. I let myself get lost in that idea.

Suddenly my reverie was broken by a noise near the other end of the bar. I strained to see what it was. A gravely voice erupted above the occasional curses from pool tables and the contained conviviality of the room, “Don’t mess with me!” A fist pounded the bar and glasses shook. It was the guy who had come in not long ago. He was face to face with the guy next to him, who had somehow caused offense. His pitcher was half empty.

The bartender stalked down to where they were sitting and told the loud guy to keep it down. This was her place and she makes the rules. He growled something. She leaned across the bar. “I don’t know who you are fella,” she snarled in a voice everyone could hear. “But watch your manners or you’re outta’ here.” He spat words back at her that I couldn’t grasp. Without hesitation, she swung an open hand that smacked his cheek. The slap resounded through the room The place went quiet.

Stunned, the guy glowered at the bartender. Seconds passed in silence. Then, collecting himself, he straightened up as tall as he could, squared his shoulders, and pushed back his hat. He tossed a few bills on the bar, swung off his stool, stood firm facing the bar, and bellowed, “I don’t have to take this shit!  I’M ON PAROLE!”  Marching emphatically to the door, he flung it open, and haughtily went out into the night.

The room burst into laughter. I laughed, too. But as I paid my bill and left, his words stayed with me. And as I strolled back to my room at the Institute, they mingled with thoughts of the lofty discussions that would go on there in the next few days among international notables on human rights policies to change the world. Everyone there would be important in some way, many self-important, all proud of themselves and their work for humanity. Me too.  But I wondered who among us would feel prouder and have a keener sense of personal dignity and their own humanity than that crusty guy who silenced the smoky saloon of hard-working, hard playing characters and the rugged bartender with his defiant words: “I don’t have to take this shit! I’M ON PAROLE!”?

 

Ciela

CIÉLA

It was after midnight when he slouched into the hotel on CopacabanaBeach. The long day of meetings in São Paulo had labored on through dinner. He’d vowed to take the half-hour flight to Rio afterwards, whatever the time, just to escape the deadly corporate strategy sessions on how to build new markets for disposable diapers. Yes. Disposable diapers. He  would be among the pioneers, he had been assured. South America was virgin territory for them, so the research department claimed. Mothers there hardly knew what disposable diapers were. And once they found out, the VP of marketing had crowed, there’d be fortunes to be made. Especially in Brazil. The biggest market. But top management said they had to move fast. Competition would be ferocious. He carried a recent Wall Street Journal article making the case, distributed at the breakfast meeting: “South America’s Emerging Markets Poised for Battle Over Diapers.”

But he didn’t care. Not anymore. Professional ambition, and the zeal for marketing products like disposable diapers, had leaked out of him–he cringed at the image. Even with a fortune to be made. Even if Cuddlies, Snugglies, Cozies, by whatever name–“Ickies,” he called them–were the key to South America’s economic future, the engine of development, the makings of utopia, a panacea for freedom and the good life, and all the rest of the humbug that the company philosophers high-mindedly puffed. He shuddered to think of the nonsense he’d heard colleagues say: “When Cuddlies are in every house and shack and shanty in Brazil you’ll see a new country. A nation of energetic, productive people who feel more alive from day one of their lives! And they’ll never go back. We’ll have customers forever. We can diversify with a whole line of products. Cuddlies for infants in various weights and absorbancies. Then Cuddly underwear. Cuddly pacifiers. Cuddly pajamas. Maybe a movie tie-in. Remember Pocohontas underpants? Why not Cuddlies in Disney movies?  Why not….?”

He decided a day in Rio de Janeiro would take him away from all that. Maybe give him a new start. Before going home to the empty apartment in Manhattan where Sylvia used to be waiting. Until six months ago when she announced she was leaving him for her workout trainer at the gym who could do wonderful, profoundly moving things for her. What could those things be, he wondered?  He guessed he would never know. She was gone. And he would go home to diaper theory.

So Rio would be an escape. It wasn’t like him to do that. But  he did it anyway. And he felt good about it.

Once in the hotel room, he emptied his pockets on a table, threw off his suit jacket and stepped out onto the terrace. Seeing the arc of CopacabanaBeach seven stories below lit by the street lamps of Avenida Atlantica swooping in a great crescent from his hotel at one end around to the other where Sugar Loaf mountain rose boldly under lights, he mentally patted himself on the back for coming. He absorbed the exhilarating sight his own self-satisfaction for a few minutes, then splashed water on his face, changed into casual clothes, locked his valuables in the closet safe to protect them from the urchins he had been warned descend from shanties in the hills to pilfer from tourists, and headed down for a drink at a sidewalk café along the broad sea-side avenue.

The Avenida Atlantica was alive in the warm December air with visitors sampling the scene and locals, cariocas, whose night had hardly begun, eating and drinking and merry-making. He took an empty table in a nearby café spread along a stretch of the avenue. Bent on plumbing the adventure, he ordered a caipirinha, which the waiter, with arching eyebrows and flailing arms, described as a Brazilian concoction of sugar cane liquor called cachaçha, sugar, and lime juice that  lifts the spirits like Carneval. That sounded just right. When it came, he sipped it timorously, then thirstily. Limeade, he said to himself, and quickly ordered another, settling in to watch the parade of ambling passers-by.  Then she sat down.

“’Allo,” a husky female voice said. Startled, he jerked his head around. There across the table a woman smiled at him. It was an easy smile, and it revealed a broken tooth she made no attempt to hide. Quite pretty, though, he thought. Large eyes. Strong features. Long dark hair. Rather young, but he could not tell for sure. The light was dim, and he suspected she wore a lot of make-up. Then studying her face a little he detected enough lines around her mouth to show that youth had passed a while ago.

“Hello,” he replied, uncertain if he should speak or ignore her. Who was she? A tourist?  Not likely. A friendly carioca? Possibly a prostitute? Probably. He’d been warned about them, too. They’re legal in Rio, he remembered some guidebook had said, but that doesn’t make ‘em honest.  He wasn’t searching for that kind of escape anyway.  Too dangerous.

“I am Ciéla,” she said warmly.

“Nice name,” he answered without thinking, hearing the melodic syllables, See-ayy-la.

“I like. From my madre. She Spanish. She love to look at the sky. Sun. Stars. The heaven. So she call me Ciéla. For the sky. The heaven.” She gestured heavenward and widened her smile.

Kind of sweet, he said to himself.

“You American?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“First time in Rio?”

“Yes. I just got here.”

“You like?”

“I guess so. It’s pretty.”

“Ees beee-yooo-teee-foool.  Sometime rain. But every time beee-yooo-teee-foool. I luvv.” She flashed her broken-tooth smile again.

He returned a quick grin, and shifted his eyes to the street.

Her voice came back. “You beezness een Rio?”

He paused. “Not really,” he said distractedly.

“How long you stay?”

“I leave tomorrow.”

“Ah, soon.”

Then for reasons he could not have explained, a perverse curiosity came over him. And he asked nervously, “You, uh, work here?”

“Yayss,” she answered pleasantly. At “Hotel.”

“Which one?”

Casually, she motioned up and down the avenue. “All.”

He gazed at her. No pretense. She was a prostitute. That was what she had meant wasn’t it? But she was softer than he had imagined someone like her would be here. Yes, even sweet.  His curiosity grew. Feigning nonchalance, he asked, “Do you like it? Your work?”  Stupid question! he scolded himself silently.

“Yays. I like,” she said without hesitation.

No stopping now. “Why?” he blurted out.

“Ohhh, I like because ayvree day somtheen new. Deefrent. Adventur!” She said it with a laugh.

He didn’t know whether to believe her or not. New? Adventure?  Nonsense! She can’t  really think that. The happy, good-natured hooker? A cliché. An act. Phony.

Then she leaned toward him and spoke in a solemn tone. “My seester, Maria, she marry. No good for her. Alwayz unhappy. My life better.”

“But,” he said impulsively, “aren’t some of the men you meet,…aren’t they, well, bad to you?”

“No. No,” came the swift reply. “O, maybee one time or two. Not like Maria.  Husband heet her many time.  I go only with men I like. And they like me. I make them happy. Every time. Every day!” She grinned broadly, and sat back, running a hand through her long black hair. The glare of a street light fell over her face, revealing more age than he had seen at first. He couldn’t stop focussing on that broken tooth. She lit a cigarette and blew smoke into the faintly stirring night air. Then she leaned across the table again and whispered heartily, “and I luvvv sexx.”  Her natural laugh burst out once more. She tossed her head back. Then she puckered her lips tightly around the cigarette.

Speechless, he gulped down the rest of his second ciapirinha and waved to the waiter for another. He wanted to leave, but he couldn’t. So what if she was just playing a role to lure a customer? She was good. Good at seeming both innocent and adventurous?  Her word!  And likeable at that.

He blinked when he heard her say, “Your beezness, you like?”

He didn’t answer. Why talk about that. He mumbled, “Oh, I don’t know.”

“Your beezness make peepul happy?”

He squinted at her. He’d never thought of it that way. There was the marketing hype, of course, all that stuff about changing peoples lives with disposable diapers.  “Sure,” he sighed , “that’s what we say.”

“What you do, your beezness?”

He squirmed in his chair. No way was he going into that. He got his drink and downed a long swallow. “Uh, children,” he said groping. ‘I, uh, work with children. Clothes to, uh, keep them dry and, uh, warm.”  Clever, he thought, a marketer’s ingenuity. He held the glass to his mouth to conceal his silly satisfaction.

“Ahh.. Goood. Makes them happy. I have son,” she said proudly “Seex year old. Hee ees beee-yooo-teee-foool.”  Reaching into her purse, she withdrew a photograph and held it out to him. “Carlos,” she beamed. Taking it carefully, he examined the picture. The boy stood on a beach in orange swimming trunks holding a volley ball against his hip.  She was right. He was beautiful. Lean and slender. Olive skin, dark curly hair, big round melting eyes, and a wide bright smile.

“Yes, he is very handsome,” he said returning the photograph.

“He verryy happy. And verrryyy smart.” She tapped her temple. “He go to school every morning. Father ees American,” she added emphatically to make a point.

Taking the bait, he asked, “The father…is a…?”

“Yays.  From Boston.”

“Does he know…?”

“Yays. He know. He come. But not now. Not any more.” She turned away, and he saw a hint of sadness flicker over her face in the street lights. They sat without speaking, watching lovers strolling past and the palms lining Avenida Atlantica wafting quietly, and the full moon hovering over the bay beaming a rippling white line across the black water into the shore.  Minutes passed. Then her husky female voice said softly.

“You go weeth me now?”

He stared at her without answering. She wore her alluring expression, mingling innocence and adventurousness with that peculiar, warm, broken-tooth smile. Almost involuntarily a voice from inside him said, “OK.”

He signaled the waiter and paid the check nervously. They got up and made their way  through the tables to the sidewalk and on to his hotel. He didn’t know quite what he was doing, and hoped no one would suspect, even though he knew it didn’t matter. But when they shut the door of his room behind them, and lay on the bed, everything changed. For him.

Ciéla was loving. Uninhibited. Joyous. She bathed him in her knowing excitements. He felt a passion he had never known. And an unexpected desire. It started with delicious sensations, and deepened to where it lit a flame inside that spread heat throughout his body. And with that heat he found himself feeling a tenderness for her he had never imagined, wanting nothing so much as to give pleasure to her. He didn’t know where it came from, this desire. It was simply a desire to please, to make her happy. And he went with it, bestowing on her every affection and delight he could discover to give. Some things he didn’t know he could do. He’d never done them before. He’d never thought of doing them. “Strange,” he thought, as he caressed and gently massaged her shoulders and neck, “why should I care?” Why did he want to make her happy?  Why did he feel this warm ecstasy flow through him as he attended to her every loving sensation?  And why her, this whore working the hotels of Copacabana, who claimed to like the “adventure” of her prostitute’s life and to “luvvv sexx,” and who hid her sadness behind a winning smile?  But he soon stopped asking, and gave himself to it. To the feeling. To the night. To Ciéla.

The first gray light of dawn was creeping into the sky when he opened his eyes and peered over the bed and out through the open balcony doors. He yawned, rubbed his face, and stretched, feeling pangs of stiffness in his muscles and joints that soon reminded him  where he was. Ciéla lay next to him already awake. She rolled on her side and raised up on an elbow. “’Allo,”  she said, with a smile he thought too full for the hour. He saw the broken tooth. It had become an emblem of her good nature.

“Hello, “ he whispered, and touched her cheek lightly with the tips of his fingers. For a few minutes, they voicelessly traced the features of each other’s faces, just becoming visible in the dawning light.

She broke the silence almost inaudibly.  “You nice. You make me verryy happyy.”

“I’m glad. You are nice, too.”

“Your wife, veerryy lucky.”

“I don’t have a wife.”

She paused. “Then your girlfriend, veerry lucky.”

“I don’t have a girlfriend.”

She lifted her fingers to her mouth and played with her lips as if coyly about to reveal a secret. “Then I lucky,” she whispered and smiled, bending down to kiss him lightly. He gathered her in his arms and held her close.

She breathed into his ear words he could just barely make out. “Don’t go. Pleez, don’t go.”

Taken aback, he asked, “What do you mean?”

“Don’t go home today.”

He swallowed hard. “I…I have to.”

They lay for a few moments in a quiet embrace. Then she pulled back and sat up slowly. He saw that her cheeks were moist with tears. She wiped them with the palm of her hand.

“How strange,” he said to himself again. “It is all so very strange.”

“Go tomorrow,” she sniffled.

“I can’t. I’m sorry. I have to go today.” He felt odd having this kind of a conversation with a prostitute in Rio   de Janeiro. Then he added, partly to be polite, “But I’ll be back.”

“When?” she asked with a calm insistence that surprised him.

“Soon. Very soon,” he answered awkwardly, not knowing quite what to say, or feel.

Ciéla sank silently back against the pillow. Through a window daylight could be seen creeping above the horizon, whitening the wisps of clouds drifting ocross the morning sky. Then she said she had to leave to get Carlos ready for school at home where her mother watched over him at night. She pressed a kiss on his forehead, and slipped out of the bed.  Soon she had washed in the bathroom, pulled on her clothes, combed her hair, dabbed on some makeup, and walked to the door. He threw on a robe, collected a wad of Reals from his wallet, and held them out to her. She paused. Shyly she let him close them into her hand.

“Pleez come back,” she said softly.

“I will. I promise. Soon. Maybe next month.”  Then an idea hit him. “Give me your address and your phone number. I’ll write to you. I’ll let you know when I’m coming. I promise.” He snatched the newspaper article from the table where he had dropped it earlier, tore off a corner, and gave it to her. She found a pen in her bag and, holding the paper to the wall, scrawled on it and handed it back. He stuffed it into the pocket of his robe.

“You are very nice, Ciéla,” he said earnestly. “I like you very much. And I will come soon.”

She gave him a half smile and kissed him gently on the mouth. Then she drew back and opened the door. “Obrigada,” she whispered. ”Thank you.”

Obrigado,” he echoed, summoning his only Portugese. “I will see you soon, Ciéla.”

She offered a half-smile again with an ambiguous nod, turned around, and vanished down the corridor. He closed the door slowly and leaned his back against it. “How very strange,” he repeated aloud, shaking his head. Then he noticed the room feeling warm and humid and wanted some fresh air. Seeing the closed curtains at the balcony shifting languorously in the sea breeze, he walked over, drew them aside and stepped out. The sun, still hidden below the horizon, was now throwing a yellow glow into the summer haze. Sugar Loaf  and the islands off shore in the distance were taking form in the eastern light. The sweeping arc of Copacabana still sparkled with street lamps just before the day fell upon them, until in a stroke, they went off. He could make out a couple of runners jogging along the broad black-and-white swirling patterned sidewalk of Avenida Atlantica abutting the beach. And a group of adolescents was setting up a volley ball net on the sand to get in their play before the heat and crowds arrived.

Then he saw her. At least he thought it was her. Walking away on the swirling pattern of the beach sidewalk. The first rays of the sun peeking over the horizon shot across the water and caught her in their beam. It was Ciéla. A wave of elation rushed through him, followed by an undertow of regret. What was going on? The sunrise. The beach. The ocean. Rio. Memories of that joyful night. The sight of Ciéla. Yes! Yes! Ciéla!  “The hell with it!” he muttered. “I’ll stay!”

Impulsively, he shouted, “Ciéla, wait! Ciéla!”

She walked on. His heart sank. Then he remembered. Shoving a hand into his pocked, he pulled out the crumpled piece of newspaper. Leaning forward against the balcony railing, he ironed out the wrinkles with his finger tips, and studied the writing. “Ciéla Gesualdo. 743….”

A gust of wind suddenly whipped over the balcony. And like a mischievous child, it plucked the paper from his hands, blew it up and around in looping circles and out into the soft morning air. “Damn!!” he cursed, and reached out for it, leaning farther and farther over the railing with his arm flailing and fingers grasping for the taunting scrap, which bounced tauntingly on the playful breeze beyond his straining fingers. Desperate, he lunged for the fugitive as it skipped mockingly away. For a moment he felt like he was flying toward it, riding a kindly swell of that jaunty breeze, as he fell, crying her name, Seeee-aayyyy-llll-aaaaaaaa…..

Ciéla didn’t hear. She had climbed into the bus for her early morning ride home to Carlos. Sitting at a window, she was telling herself that this nice man who had made her so happy would, after all, be just like the others. He wouldn’t come back. Not to her. He didn’t even tell her his name. The bus moved off. Ciéla looked out at the palm trees flitting past, the wide velvety beach tapering into the surf, the ceaseless waves rolling rhythmically to crash in sparkling spray on the sand, the rising sun silhouetting Sugar Loaf and the rocky islands and glistening over the water of the perfect bay, kissing Rio awake. She smiled to think this was hers. Every day. And every day, something new.

 

Hemingway’s Ghost

James Sloan Allen

  

    “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

The book flapped shut, and Burton Sharp let it drop over on his stomach as he lay in bed beside his sleeping wife, Sylvia. His head sank back into the pillow. He switched off
the bedside lamp. His eyes blankly fixed on the lazy rotations of the ceiling
fan in the dim moonlight filtering with the night air through gauzy curtains at
the window. What a soft sentiment, he said to himself. Nostalgia? Regret? This
from Ernest Hemingway, the tough-guy writer who loved to kill as much as he
loved to live?  Whose life as a big-game hunter and deep-sea fisherman, bullying boxer and bullfighting aficionado, two-fisted drinker and intrepid war correspondent was as famous as his books?  To live such a life!  Free. Adventurous. Literary. How many young men have yearned for it?  Or used to. Me too, Burton admitted. Me, too.

Then it hit him. Maybe Hemingway didn’t get what he wanted, after all. Why the nostalgia, even regrets, at the end, in that last line of that last book, A Moveable Feast? A memoir, no less. But not about the legendary life and the stellar literary career. Instead it’s about the beginning, before all of that. Why did Hemingway look back over the years of adventure and fame and seem almost sorry, as if he had lost something? What was it? Paris? Youth? The Twenties? But that’s probably how most lives work out, Burton ruminated, sleepily following the hypnotic circles of the fan. A trail of incidents, people, places, events that we leave behind, a trail that leads us to where we are, but that we can’t see clearly until we look back, for then some incidents that had hardly caught our eye have become landmarks, and others that once jolted us have left barely a trace. Neurosis comes from this, of course, Burton reminded himself, when we secretly cling to some moments so tightly that we cannot move on. But it’s not neurotic
to remember. Or to regret.

Burton Sharp could feel himself swimming in a stream now, as he tended to do late at night, hoping it would carry him, like free association in psychoanalysis, to undiscovered
places and unexpected truths. The next words came to him as an echo: “The memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment, and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”  The end of Swann’s Way. Proust meets Hemingway. Burton smiled inwardly at the pairing. The wan, loquacious novelist of the French belle epoche’s lustrous social world, who wrote in bed all day
breathing the thick unchanging air of his cushioned room, here together with
the hardy he-man writer who whittled literary language to the bone and wrote of
cold heroics and emotional desolation and lonely death, and who boasted that
he’d choose action over fiction any day. Yet, here they were partners in images
of memory and regret, in a Paris of long ago.

Pleased with himself, Burton Sharp closed his drooping eyelids and allowed the stream
to ebb away into the rhythmic lapping of shallow waves on the beach below the
open window. He liked tropical nights. Key West was a good place to enjoy them. Simple to get to. No customs to go through. And a hospitably historical town. He had come here years earlier researching his first Hemingway book. But that seemed a life-time away. Before he knew Sylvia.

Burton and Sylvia had been married for nearly twenty-five years now. Before they met, Burton had written some short stories, and published a couple of them that nobody read in obscure literary quarterlies. And he had finished a novel that no one would publish.
That’s when he had settled on becoming a professor of literature. He had
resented the clichéd come-down, and chafed at the prosaic demands of academia.
But he had submitted to those demands, teaching pedestrian students and
grinding out scholarly articles on American literature and a critical book on
Hemingway. And he had married Sylvia, a younger colleague at their small New
England college. Now he was writing a new Hemingway biography, to put in the
pulse of life that others had left out. Or so Burton told everyone. Sylvia
kidded him that he was just sublimating his desire to be Hemingway. But that’s OK, she would say, because sublimation is safe adventure; it can feel as good as the real thing without the dirt and discomfort.

Burton and Sylvia had arrived in Key West that afternoon for the spring semester break and a reprieve from the northern chill. Burton was also tracking down some fugitive
details for the book. And he was trying to decide what to do about Paula.

Paula, a graduate student with irrepressible allure, who had fluttered on the
periphery of his consciousness through a class he had taught on The Lost
Generation,  until one day she had flown right into the center. She had come to his office for advice on research topics about Hemingway. Heaving with adulation, she had asked “Professor Sharp” if she could work with him on her Master’s thesis because “you know all the interesting things about literature” and “are so-o-o exciting to talk to.” Then
she came again. And again. And again. She wanted more than advice. Burton knew
that. Why else would she keep coming so often and keep asking these unnecessary
questions, and dress like that, and heave, and adulate, and linger? Burton was yielding. He knew that, too.

Burton loved Sylvia, or he had loved her long enough that he didn’t think about it anymore. But deep in middle age and feeling that he was losing a little more of himself
each day, he could not resist the attraction of…what?  Was it Paula’s seductiveness that made his blood rush and his head fizz and his knees go rubbery? Or was it Paula’s
adulation of him? Burton was honest enough to make the distinction. But he
could not honestly make it here.

He was glad to get away. He wanted to sort out his feelings and weigh what kind of life was left to him, and to Sylvia. Sylvia, good Sylvia. She never pretended to be what she
wasn’t, or to know what she didn’t know. But she always seemed to know the
important things. Sylvia had discrimination, and modesty, and integrity, and
what Burton publicly praised as her Buddhist virtue of detachment. Rare
qualities in academia, he would say. Her colleagues agreed. Good Sylvia. Paula
was different. She lacked discrimination. She winked at modesty. She blinked at
integrity. She could never be detached. She heaved and adulated. And this got
her into Burton’s mind. He couldn’t get her out. He wanted her. He admitted
that. But he wanted to absolve himself first. Somehow, he hoped, Key West would
help.

Voices of late-night passers-by talking and laughing in the street pulled Burton back
from the edge of sleep. He heard the roar of a motorcycle gunning its engine a
few blocks away. Probably heading for Sloppy Joe’s, he guessed.  He pictured the cavernous bar on Duval Street, famous for the drinking bouts and boxing matches Hemingway had held there to prove his prowess against the kind of ruffians who had given Key West its original character as a scarfaced-seaman’s-hangout, and whose tradition lives on in burly bikers wearing leather skull-and-crossbones jackets who gather in packs there to drink today. Burton took himself back through time to the story
of how Sloppy Joe’s original owner, Hemingway’s boozing and fishing pal Joe
Russell, had moved his establishment one night to Duval Street from its cramped
location up Green Street not long after Hemingway had met the young Martha
Gellhorn at the bar on a summer afternoon in 1936, and four years later made
her his third wife and left for Cuba, and that was twelve years after he had
first arrived in Key West flushed with youthful renown as the author of tough
short stories and The Sun Also Rises and newly married to his second wife, Pauline, who had taken him from his first wife, Hadley. One new wife and new life after another. A trail through wives and exploits and books and honors. And then…regrets?

Enough! Burton pushed the meandering skein from his mind, rolled over and burrowed his head under a pillow. He willed himself to sleep. But his sleep was not easy. It
swarmed with restive dreams.

Burton saw himself in Paris, before he had ever been there. In the working-class neighborhood up behind the Pantheon, he was entering the diminutive Place de la Contrascarpe, bordered by dusty shops, weather-beaten apartment houses, and a couple of nondescript cafes, where a quaint fountain in the center splashed under a ring
of shady trees. He recognized the spot. It was only steps from the bathroomless
third-floor flat on the Rue Cardinal Lemoine where Hemingway and Hadley and
their infant son nicknamed Bumby had lived at the beginning, when they were very poor and very happy. Here, Hemingway had said, he would walk home through the leaves that blew off the trees in the wind, and  the rain would pelt the apartment windows when the bad weather came after autumn.

Then Burton saw him. Sitting at an outdoor cafe in the square. Young, husky, dark-haired, clean-shaven except for a black mustache, a coffee cup and a glass of wine at
his elbow, bent over a notebook, rapidly scrawling. Hemingway, and a story “writing itself,” as he said stories sometimes did. That is the life, the dreaming Burton said aloud to no one. Writing literature in Parisian cafes. Talented and free, creating a myth, and
living it. Burton wanted to speak to him, to ask about his life, about Paris,
about writing, about anything. He walked across the square and under the trees
and around the fountain. But when he reached the outer tables of the cafe,
Hemingway had disappeared. No cup, no glass, no notebook. The dreamer could
only stand there watching leaves scatter through the empty chairs.

Then the scene dissolved, and Burton found himself in another, larger Paris square. The bustling Place St. Michel on the Seine. There, through the windows of another
cafe he saw Hemingway again, hunched over his notebook at a table, with a
coffee cup and a half-filled glass at the ready. Writing about Michigan, the
dreamer suspected, because Hemingway had said he did that one rainy autumn day
while drinking a Rum St. James in “a good cafe on the Place St. Michel” when Michigan was far away. The dreamer opened the cafe door and went inside. He turned toward the table at the window. It was vacant. No cup. No glass. No notebook. Nobody.

The dream went on, hazy and vivid, tantalizing and real. To the Cloiserie des Lilas
at the other end of the Boulevard St. Michel, where it intersects with the
Boulevard Montparnasse, and where Hemingway often went to write, he confessed,
like “a blind pig” or with “the air of a man alone in the jungle” after he and Hadley and Bumby moved to the adjacent Rue du Notre Dame du Champs in 1923, where they were still very poor and very happy. And there he was. Writing fervently at a table outside under the sheltering trees. And then he wasn’t.

Again and again the dreamer found Hemingway at the cafes where he wrote and ate and drank and socialized along the Boulevard Montparnasse–the Dome, the Select, the Negre de Toulouse, and the unnamed–and then close by at 27 rue de Fleurus, where Hemingway visited Gertrude Stein in her long-time home when he was shaping the literary style that became his own, and that Gertrude Stein claimed credit for teaching
him, and to whom, like other writers–except Ezra Pound–he was not as gracious
in his memoir as he might have been. Hemingway was everywhere. Then he wasn’t.

The dream gathered speed as the dreamer tracked Hemingway from Paris to Spain for
the running of the bulls in Pamplona and for the Spanish Civil War, then to the
Serengeti Plain in Africa for safaris, and on to the commodious residence
outside Havana where Hemingway lived for twenty years after Key West, and back
to wartime Europe for real-life heroics, then to Sun Valley and the house in
neighboring Ketchum that he shared with his fourth wife, Mary, where in the
fall of 1960 he put the final touches on A Moveable Feast, and early one morning the next July put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger three weeks before his sixty-second birthday.

The gunshot blast woke Burton with a start. He sat up and pushed a trembling hand
through his thinning hair. Where did all that come from? But it was no mystery.
He had been trailing Hemingway for years. It was his profession. And his hobby.
Sylvia said it bordered on obsession. And being here in Key West and reading
the memoir, and puzzling over its elegiac tone, how could he not dream some
such dream?

Burton slumped back on the pillow. The questions intruded again. Not that Hemingway’s suicide troubled him. That was an honest act, Burton had always said, because Hemingway was in decline and ill. But what about Paris? What about the nostalgia in the last book finished before the suicide? Was the tone just a topos, a literary mood struck for effect?  That wouldn’t be like Hemingway, Burton insisted.
Hemingway despised mere effects. “Write one true sentence.”  That was
Hemingway’s creed. He’d repeated it in that last book. But what about the hints
of sentimentality? Could true sentences be sentimental? True sentimentality? Not possible. Sentimentality is a false emotion. So, what was Hemingway’s true
emotion in those last lines of regret that sounded almost sentimental?, Burton
asked himself. And what about the bitterness before the regrets? Bitterness
over “the rich,” as Hemingway scornfully labeled them. Once “you have the rich,” he had snarled, “nothing is ever as it was again.”  That was rich Pauline, the second wife, the wife of the Key West years, and her crowd, who came with success. Bitterness and regret? And nostalgia? Had Hemingway let his life slip away from him? What had he lost? What had he wanted?

Stop! Burton scolded himself once more. This is just a preoccupation of the night. Let it
go. Besides, perhaps tomorrow there’ll be clues at Hemingway’s house. Burton
pitched onto his side. One hand fell against Sylvia’s, resting on her pillow.
She didn’t flinch. Sleeps like she’s hibernating, he said mentally. Nothing
disturbs her. Lucky Sylvia. Good Sylvia. He drew his hand away and rolled over.
Closing his eyes tight, he concentrated on the seductive tropical sounds of the
sifting palms and the lapping surf outside, and eventually he floated off on
imagined waves of an endless sea to beckoning images of Paula.

The next morning Burton groggily bemoaned the restless night as he and Sylvia had
breakfast on the back porch of their Bed & Breakfast overlooking the ocean
on the Atlantic side of the island away from the hubbub at the western end of
town. It was known as the Dewey House, named for the philosopher John Dewey who
had vacationed in it during his later years. Burton and Sylvia liked the
intellectual pedigree. And Burton had invented a scene of Dewey and Hemingway
meeting at Sloppy Joe’s in the 1930s– Hemingway, the young buck flexing his
muscles and his fresh reputation as the rough, plain-spoken all-American
writer, and Dewey, the grand old man of American philosophy, admired world-wide
for his down-home pragmatism and high-minded democratic principles, both
toasting to plain honesty and earthiness, the American style, in philosophy, in
literature, in life. Now, Burton remarked, the Dewey House is just a modest B
& B. And Hemingway’s house is a major tourist attraction, a shrine.
Literature has eclipsed philosophy.

Burton and Sylvia bantered through breakfast, enjoying the ocean glistening in the morning sunlight under a pale blue cloudless sky, and sailboats bobbing against the
azure backdrop as if in an Impressionist painting. Then they set out for the
shrine.

The walk from South Street along Whitehead Street took them past nondescript bungalows and a few pretty, two-story “conch” houses, some a hundred years old, enduring emblems of historic Key West charm, quaintly mingling Victorian fussiness and French-New Orleans grace, their wrap-around porches and balconies lined by
filigreed railings evoking languorous evenings of tall cool drinks and breezy
relief from tropical heat. When they reached the Hemingway house at the corner
of Whitehead and Olivia–across from the towering lighthouse oddly out of place
here, practically in the middle of town–tourists were lined up at the entrance
in the six-foot high brick wall encircling the property. Burton grumbled while
they waited, paid the fee, and went through.

A jungle of trees and plants almost hid the grandiose conch house, twice the size of any other in town and built of stone, not wood. It could have presided over a lavish
plantation in the South Seas. Its yellow walls and green porch and balcony
running around the two floors blended into the jungle and the verdant,
penumbral grounds. Walking down a winding footpath, Burton pointed out the
smaller mansard-roofed  cottage behind the main house where Hemingway would go to write in the upstairs studio. And, there were cats. Inconspicuous at first, they soon seemed to materialize everywhere. Dozens of them, lazing on the porch, munching from bowls of food, crawling through the bushes, curled up under trees.

“Six-toed, many of them,” Burton explained. “Scruffy mongrels descended from Hemingway’s own. Cats evidently could do no wrong for Hemingway. They were probably the only animals he wouldn’t kill. He shot dogs to protect ‘em.
Key West is a haven for cats now. They’re everyplace.”

“Why the attachment?” Sylvia asked.

“Probably because they’re always a bit feral, untrainable. Hemingway liked that in animals.”

Burton and Sylvia loitered among the cats in the yard and sat in a couple of garden chairs studying the handsome house and watching tourists milling about. They could
overhear tour guides retelling how Hemingway and Pauline had bought the house
in 1931 with a gift of $8000 from her rich, generous uncle, and how Hemingway
had written great literature in it, and how he had left permanently in 1940 for
Cuba with Martha Gellhorn, and how the house had been sold in the 1950s with
the furnishings still in it after Pauline died. Burton had seen and heard it
all before. On his earlier quest for Hemingwayana. But this time was different.
He didn’t like it.

“It’s wrong,” he muttered to Sylvia. “A theme park. A circus. Tourists traipsing all over, gawking and craving cheap anecdotes to tell back home. False. Phony. Un-Hemingway.”

“Don’t be so supercilious, Bertie,” Sylvia chided him. “You’re a tourist, too, you know.”

“Oh, that hurts. Isn’t this research?”

“Well, if you want it to be, you’ll have to do more than complain. Let’s go inside.”

“With all of them?”

“You can do it. Hemingway would expect courage.”

Taking her muttering husband’s hand, Sylvia led Burton into the throng pouring through the house. Inside, tour guides were purveying their pat histories in every room.
Burton suddenly tugged Sylvia aside through a brief opening in the mass, and
urged her up a stairway. At the top, skirting another clutch of visitors, they
ducked into an unpeopled room. It was spacious and spare, with a large, ornate iron
bed  cordoned off against one wall. On the bed, a plump orange tabby cat sprawled, blissfully asleep, oblivious to any intrusion.

“Hemingway’s bedroom,” Burton tersely observed.

“He might not like the circus atmosphere,” Sylvia said, “but he would like the integrity of the cat, wouldn’t he? Or is it a prop?”

“The ‘integrity of the cat’?” Burton replied approvingly. “Nice. Yes, it’s the truest thing here.” He reached over the cordon and grazed the cat’s fur with his finger tips. The
creature languidly stretched out its legs, splayed its paws, and contentedly
slept on. “No prop,” he assured her.

Voices swelled near the doorway, and the room began filing with murmuring visitors in loud clothes. “And this was Ernest and Pauline’s bedroom,” the guide announced to
his ogling flock.

Burton and Sylvia withdrew through a door at the opposite end of the room and hastened down a corridor to an outside door that opened onto the front balcony. From there, through the lush foliage, they could see a river of people gushing through the
front gate from tour buses on the street.

“Yuck!“ Burton grouched. “But can you imagine what it must have been like here in the
Thirties? The tropical grandeur of it. The peacefulness. No tourists.”

“No air-conditioning,” Sylvia added.

“But that’s the point,” he said. “It would have been so natural, authentic, quiet, steamy,
languorous.” Then he heard an inner voice say, “What would Paula be like on a
steamy, languorous night?” A thrilling sensation coursed through him. Impulsively, he turned away from Sylvia, ignoring her comic retort about air-conditioning being part of nature’s plan. Then he recovered himself and, wheeling around said with mock ominousness, “If we don’t go now we might never get out. We’ll get caught in the crush and left as bony remains, like the great fish in The Old Man and the Sea after
the sharks got him.”

Sylvia groaned at the ungainly allusion. “Bertie, your literary humor can be about as deadly as a shark. Just not as cutting.”

“Thanks. I’ll remember that when I need it.”

They elbowed their way back to the stairs and down through an ascending tide of bodies. Outside again, they wedged through the incoming visitors and squeezed out the gate. Taking a deep breath and brushing off the invisible noxious detritus of the
aliens, they charted a course for a quiet place on the shore where they could sit and have a drink and take in the beneficent serenity of the ocean. Strolling up Duval Street, they passed an unbroken row of cafes, boutiques, T-shirt stores, souvenir shops, and the other usual fare of resort towns. But one thing wasn’t usual. It was oddly conspicuous. That was Hemingway. His face was everywhere. Not the younger man of his Key West days, but the familiar Papa Hemingway, aging, handsomely bearded, his white-hair combed onto his forehead. It was a logo. In advertising. On building signs. T-shirts. Jackets. Curios. Glass ware. Dinner plates.

“Hemingway is as big here as Shakespeare is in Stratford-upon-Avon,” Sylvia exclaimed.

“Bigger,” Burton responded. “He’s got American consumerism going for him. And it’s gotten a lot worse since I was here before.”

Approaching Sloppy Joe’s, they saw a string of shiny motorcycles lining the curb outside. A cacophony of voices backed by the pulsing beat of the juke-box reverberated
from inside through the open window walls out into the street. In the capacious, rustic interior, they could see scarred wooden tables and banged up chairs jammed with midday revelers. Leather jackets and flowered shirts, rough guys and tough broads, boisterous college kids and novelty-seeking tourists, all drinking and inhaling the musty atmosphere, watched over by a gigantic smiling face of Papa Hemingway extending across a wall behind the bandstand.

“Hemingway votaries in the temple,” Sylvia cracked. “Do you suppose they all read him?”

“Do they read at all?”

“You’re such a snob.”

Jabbing each other genially, Burton and Sylvia left the votaries at Sloppy Joe’s  and went up Green Street where they paused beneath a sign at Captain Tony’s depicting a rugged seaman boasting this was “the original Sloppy Joe’s.” From the sidewalk, they peered into a smaller, darker, nearly deserted bar, every surface seemingly cluttered with tacked-on mementos of patrons past, and proudly exuding the grimy patina of reverential age.

“They’re probably preserving Hemingway’s and Martha Gellhorn’s fingerprints on the bar,” Burton said sarcastically.

“But such respect for history,” Sylvia remarked.

They moved on to Front Street accompanied by the thunder of more motorcycles gunning their way to Sloppy Joe’s, or just calling attention to themselves, and by tourists
disgorging from the waterside hotels. As they reached the end of the street near the shoreline restaurants, Sylvia took hold of Burton’s arm and slowed to a stop. “Bertie,” she said reflectively, “have you noticed anything unusual about a lot of the men here?”

“What do you mean?”

“Something odd about their appearance.”

Burton studied the pedestrians and the motorcyclists coming and going. He began to see a pattern.

“Hey, you’re right,” he said. “Older guys. Cropped white hair. Trimmed grey beards.
Hemingway look-alikes!”

“One or two you wouldn’t notice,” Sylvia pointed out. “But ten, twenty, more. What a spectacle. What do you think it means?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Pretending to be someone you’re not? To have a more interesting life than you have? It’s really very ironic when you think about it. Hemingway being honored
by mass imitations of his appearance! But now that I say that, it occurs to me that they actually have Hemingway look-alike contests here every year. They advertise ‘em in tourist brochures. I had thought it was a joke. But it’s a cult.”

Sylvia cocked her head slightly and threw Burton a quizzical smile.

“What’s that expression for?” he asked.

She chuckled softly and linked her arm in his. “Time for that drink,” she said.  Minutes later they were seated at a café on the water ordering drinks and a light lunch.

“The Hemingway look-alikes,” Sylvia picked up the subject again, “do you think  they’re doing the same thing as the Elvis imitators?”

Burton hesitated. “Not really,” he began. “The Elvis guys are at least acting out fantasies that fit Elvis. He was a creature of the entertainment culture that depends on the mass media and marketing and publicity and the fawning identifications of ‘fans’ with ‘celebrities.’ Can you imagine, say, Moses look-alikes trekking the hills of Judea, or even little Napoleon look-alikes glowering from horseback around Europe? You need our crass modernity for that. But Elvis, yes. His imitators are just like him. Entertainers, antic pretenders, show biz fabrications. The Hemingway imitators belong to that culture, too. But Hemingway didn’t. Hemingway was no Elvis. He’d hate it.”

“Are you sure?” Sylvia prodded. “Hemingway liked fame, didn’t he? And he got a lot of
‘celebrity’ from magazines and from movies of his books, and he fraternized with movie stars.”

“OK. LIFE magazine and movies of his stories and books might have made him familiar. But it wasn’t ‘celebrity’ then. I mean, Hemingway wasn’t just a creature of publicity. He had genuine ‘fame’ for doing something significant. And he would have despised a world that confuses celebrity with achievement, fantasy with reality and that doesn’t care about the difference, and that lives for the theme park version of reality,
pretending all the time.

“He wouldn’t have just laughed it off?”

“Nah. Hemingway didn’t laugh that way. Not the frivolous laughter that accepts anything as long as it’s amusing or campy. Elvis look-alikes, bad TV, that stuff. Grinning with a trophy of the hunt, yes. Guffawing with buddies over drinks, yes. But not just casually laughing things off, or spewing the phony social mirth of cocktail parties that people use nowadays to take the place of words. Anyway, there’s not much humor in Hemingway’s books. A bit of satire, but it’s usually biting, deriding people he knew, or writers he liked to send up–The Torrents of Spring, who reads it? No real humor.”

“You figure Ernest was too earnest for that?” Sylvia quipped.

“Ugh! And you complain about my humor! But you’re right. His version of the importance of being earnest  wasn’t Oscar Wilde’s. Hemingway was never trivial. He saw life as struggle, a contest of wills. The hunter and the hunted. The drama of death. Noble. Tragic. His idea of a good time was to carouse or fight or kill. He’d never be a mere tourist. Never just sight-see or sit on a beach. And never just pretend. ‘Write one true sentence.’ That’s what he believed. And that’s the irony of this town. It’s all about
tourism and frivolity and pretense. And Hemingway’s in the middle of it!  If he saw it today, he’d be repelled and run away again.”

Sylvia held her eyes on Burton for a time without speaking. “Bertie,” she began tentatively, “I don’t know a lot about Hemingway, but I suspect you’re idealizing him. He was, I’d bet, closer to his imitators than you say. Didn’t he brag about everything he did, and about things he didn’t do? And wasn’t he always brazenly acting out his myth of
himself as a heroic, honest guy, trying to prove something to himself and
others? Didn’t he pretend, after all?”

Taken aback at Sylvia’s uncharacteristic intensity, Burton sat in silence. Maybe Sylvia was right again. Hemingway was proud, and a braggart, and he could be vain. But was
he false, or pretending, or self-deceived–like when he insistently plied the Gulf of Mexico hunting Nazi submarines? Burton began feeling discomfited. He didn’t know why. And he didn’t want to argue.

“Well,” he said distractedly, skirting the subject, “maybe so. Maybe so.”

“That’s a pretty tepid response,” Sylvia said. “I don’t think you believe it. You know, Bertie,” she went on, “you seem a bit preoccupied and on edge lately. Anything wrong?”

He couldn’t say anything. He just wanted everything that needed saying to have been said already. Whatever that was. And for it to be all right.

“No,” he feigned. “Just tired. Food will help.”

They lunched and idled through the balmy afternoon gazing at cruise ships coming in, at sailboats skiffing away, and at buoyant parasailors riding high through the far wide sky, their brightly colored parachutes tethered to speed boats towing them back and forth beyond the harbor. Then they browsed oddity shops–a huge seashell emporium offering decorative crustaceans of every shape, a couple of cat-themed boutiques selling objects celebrating Key West’s patron pet, and the Key Lime Pie Company purveying every culinary use of key limes known to humankind. As the late-day shadows lengthened, they wandered back to the shore and the seaside gathering place called Mallory Square. “We have to see the sunset from here,” Burton said. “Otherwise you’ve missed Key West.”

They were not alone. Hundreds of people were sauntering into the square. And jugglers, mimes, musicians, fire-eaters, and other performers were preparing their acts. Burton and Sylvia found a spot near the water. By the time the sun had lowered to the
horizon, the entire square was filled, and music, laughter, and bursts of clapping were resounding in the air. Then, as if on cue, the sun, poised against the crimson sky, inched downward, growing larger and a duskier orange as it descended beyond the glassy waters, silhouetting sailboats against its fire. Cameras clicked. Approving oohs and ahhs rippled through the crowd. When the sun’s quivering crest finally slipped out of sight, a radiant array of colors washed up into the sky. And the audience erupted in sustained applause. Taken aback, Burton and Sylvia glanced at each other and shared a muffled laugh. The show was over. The sunset was an entertainment, along with the
jugglers and mimes and musicians and fire-eaters.

“Well done, sun!” Burton joked, as he and Sylvia ambled off with the others, to return through town, past the crammed cafes and rowdy bars, the T-shirt boutiques and curio
shops, to the Atlantic side for dinner–and for the obligatory Key Lime pie, Sylvia bent on finding the Platonic version of this indigenous confection. Later, sated and tired, they settled back into their philosopher’s bedroom for the end of their Key West day.

Sylvia fell asleep almost as soon as she wrapped herself in the sheets. Burton lifted a book from the stack on his nightstand. To Have and Have Not. Another of Hemingway’s airy literary titles that belie the gritty fiction inside, Burton had sometimes complained. Hemingway had culled them from phrases of other authors. Not exactly “true sentences,” were they, Burton admitted. Was that pretense? This was not a very good novel, either. But it was written in Key West, and set in and around the island. You have to read it if you go, Burton had instructed friends. For the flavor, if nothing else. He
started reading it for the third or fourth time, but he couldn’t get into it. He dozed and tried again. No use. Something was pulling at him. The dream? The town? Paula? The flush of excitement he had felt at the Hemingway house? Yes, that was it. That feeling. Or was it some other emotion about the house? He had to go back. Without the tourists.

He waited a while, distractedly reading and fitfully dozing. Then he eased out of bed, put on slacks and a shirt and sandals, and slinked out the door. It was well after
midnight. Padding along the streets, he passed loving couples in tight embrace and party-goers straggling home in this ever-reveling town. When he got to the house, he dallied along the walled yard, letting a car come and go. Then, seeing he was alone, he hurriedly found a foot-hold in the craggy bricks and hefted himself up the and over the top.

He dropped clumsily to the ground on the other side, crumpling to his knees among the
foliage. It was easier than he’d feared. Not as high as he’d expected. Not as impenetrably over-grown. Only a scuff or two to show for it. Now, not a sound,
except for his restrained panting. “Glad Hemingway liked cats, not dogs,” he wheezed, standing up against the wall. The nearly full moon in the clear sky cast a bright night light down through the trees, falling in patches on the grass like camouflage. The moonlight was so bright it reminded Burton of movies that have night scenes filmed in daytime with the camera lens tightened to make the foreground dark, but daylight still shines in the background. It’s artificial night once you see it. This moonlight glared almost like that. But, Burton mouthed the words, this was an honest night.

He surveyed the house. Most of it lay in deep shadows. But the portions of the walls that caught the moonlight gleamed in an eerie yellow-green. Great place for a
Halloween party, it occurred to him. And much better than earlier in the day. No circus. Quiet. Authentic. True.

He stepped cautiously through the shadows across the lawn. Remembering the chairs where he and Sylvia had sat that morning, he groped toward them where he could sit and have a good view of the house. He lowered himself into a chair. A screeching
yowl tore the silence like a banshee in attack. Leaping up, he saw a small black form bound into the gloom. A cat. He’d sat on a cat. Shaken, he warily sat down again. When he regained his composure, he detected other cats lying on the chairs, beneath the chairs, on the grass, beside tree trunks, against the house. It was their place now. Hemingway would like that, Burton speculated. Let the cats have it. They don’t pretend. They’re just themselves.

Facing the house, Burton envisioned Hemingway here. He had done some good writing in this house, or in that cottage out back. Not as much as the tour guides claim, but enough. A Farewell to Arms had come just before he settled here. And For Whom the Bell Tolls came after he’d left and switched his affections to Cuba and to Martha Gellhorn. But there was the first bullfight book. The first Africa book. Some of the best short stories. True, the one novel he wrote start to finish while living in the house, To Have…, wasn’t very successful. He must have been too close to Key West to write about it well. He usually wrote about things better when they were past and distant.
Hemingway had admitted that. “Transplanting yourself,” he described it when he told of writing about Michigan while sitting in that “good café in the Place St. Michele.” He had to go to Paris to write about Michigan. And to Key West and Cuba and Idaho to write about Europe and Africa. He did write The Sun Also Rises close to its subject in Paris and Spain. But, Burton remembered, Hemingway had then revised it in Austria that winter of 1926 when he had fallen in love with Pauline, and “the rich” had come into his life. And everything was different after that.

Hemingway’s memories of Pauline and her ilk weren’t happy. So he couldn’t have been very contented here. The Key West novel wasn’t happy. But, Burton asked himself,
what did Hemingway write that was happy? “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” was about as far as Hemingway could go. He wrote it here after the first trip to Africa. Francis Macomber is happy for about one minute before his wife accidentally blows his head off with an elephant gun on safari.

Burton liked this tidy insight. Of course, he conceded, “happy” was probably too “domestic” a term for Hemingway. Hemingway never cared for domestic life, or for women, either, at heart. He needed female affection. But that’s not the same thing. He
had to be active, manly. Was that pretense? When he lived here he was usually alone writing about masculine action, or fishing in the Gulf with Joe Russell or drinking at Sloppy Joe’s, or he was far away. He traveled more and more during the Thirties. Africa. The Spanish Civil War. Lengthening stays in Cuba. Then he left for good. The second marriage was over. The third was beginning. And with it came For Whom the Bell Tolls and new acclaim, then a good war in Europe he relished playing a part in and
“liberating” the Ritz Hotel in Paris–was this another pretense? But his World
War II novel didn’t work. How could it with a title like Across the River and into the Trees?  A Hemingway parody. The third marriage didn’t work, either. How could it with a wife like Martha Gellhorn, that resolutely independent woman who couldn’t live in Hemingway’s shadow or abide his histrionics? And then–The Old Man and the Sea. His best. On his mind for fifteen years. It brought a Pulitzer. And clinched the Nobel Prize. But after that, for the last ten years, almost nothing. Or nothing that he finished or was making into something memorable. Except the memoir. Why?

Burton left the question hanging and took in the moonlight playing among the shadows of the evocative scene. From the corner of his eye, he vaguely discerned the cats
lying next to him. He came back to them again, the dumb honorable nature of animals. None of the self-consciousness that makes people pretend and prevaricate. Just honest instincts. Hemingway admired them for that. The Old Man and the Sea returned to
Burton’s mind. All true sentences. Crystal clear. But, it now struck him, wasn’t that a story about loss, too? Hemingway had believed he was writing about the old man’s courage and manliness and endurance, and about the noble fish’s beauty and strength and valor, and all of that Hemingwayesque morality. But in the end, it turns out to be about loss. The old man kills the valiant fish that he has come to love. As he must, to prove his manhood, to test himself against nature. “I love you fish,” he says, ”but I must kill you.”  Then he loses the fish, his victory, his triumph, his honor, to the sharks, bite by bite, and he winds up with nothing but a skeleton and with regrets for having taken the
great free fish from the sea, depriving it of its splendid life–for nothing. And he goes home to bed sad, and he dreams of lions that he had once seen roaming in Africa. Loss and regret and dreams of happier days. And so the story closes: “The old man was dreaming of the lions.”  Was that Hemingway himself?  Burton asked in a flash of
discovery. Was he, too, dreaming of the lions at the end? “But this is how Paris was in the early days when….”

Savoring the image, Burton scanned the moonlit yard. The shroud of shadows was drawing back as the moon passed to the west, bringing the front corner of the house into the light. Very grand. And spooky. Burton’s curious eyes played along the lower
porch railing and up the moonlit corner column to the second floor balcony. He blinked. His head jerked back. He blinked again. He squinted. Was that a figure standing at the railing in the bright moonlight? He closed his eyes and shook his head.  He opened them again and focused on the balcony, the figure was still there. Burton leaned forward, his hands on his knees. He gaped. Was it really…him?

Older than when he had lived here. The Papa figure. Bulky chest, safari shirt, khaki shorts, cropped white beard, short white hair. Gazing motionless toward the moon.

Burton sat almost breathless for what seemed like minutes. Was this the dream? Again? He tried to wake up. But he couldn’t. Then, as in the dream, an urge came over him. Slowly, he stood up. And he crept through the shadows to get closer, fixing his eyes on the figure above. He stopped near the front of the house beneath the balcony.
Unlike the dream, Hemingway didn’t vanish. He was still there at the railing. Burton could now see that he was cradling something in his arms, stroking it lightly. A cat. The hands that loved to kill were caressing a cat with the tenderness of a child. Out of character. Or was it?

Burton craned to scrutinize the face. He couldn’t tell for sure, but the features, although aged and bearded, appeared almost soft, kindly. This was not the hearty face of  the photographs. The boyishly grinning hunter and fisherman. The ruddy pugilist. The champion drinker. The fervent writer. It wore the deep lines of time and had about it a contemplative aura, as though he were summoning images from the past. The eyes seemed to glint in the light. It wasn’t a sparkle. That face could not have sparkling eyes. They were more likely rheumy with premature age, reflecting the moonlight that they searched into. And except for the fingers stroking the nape of the cat’s neck, the figure
remained unearthly still, leaning against the railing, looking off into the night.

Burton didn’t move. The two of them were locked in a tableau. For how long, Burton couldn’t tell. Finally, the figure above shifted slightly, stepped back from the railing,
waited a few seconds in the light, and disappeared into the shadows.

Burton stared. Was it the dream? Or a dream within a dream? Or…? Baffled and disoriented, doubting his senses but unwilling to deny them, he then thought he saw a feathery object wafting down from the balcony. He watched it come to rest on the branches of a bush near the ground. He looked up again. No one. Irresistibly drawn, Burton stole toward the object. He leaned down and plucked it from the leaves. An ordinary sheet of paper. Holding it in the moonlight, he could just make out a page of faintly typed words. He brought it close to read. Three disconnected lines came out to him: “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her….  Paris was never to be
the same again…. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very
poor and very happy.”

The paper dropped from Burton’s fingers. He froze. He trembled. Then gradually he raised his eyes once more to the balcony above. Empty. He brought them down and nervously glanced around. Nothing but the shadows and the moonlight and the weird
nighttime forms. Breathing haltingly, he bent down and picked up the paper. And
a mysterious sensation of tranquillity began rising within him. Swiftly it engulfed him in a beneficent spell.

Without thinking, he knew what he would do. He moved as if levitating through the darkness to the front steps of the house and up onto the porch. Through the glass window of the front door he could see only the silent night of a haunted house. Crouching down, he slid the sheet of paper under the door. Then he backed down the steps, and made his way through the moonlight and the shadows across the grass to the wall. After a last gaze at the vacant balcony bathed in the eerie yellow-green
light, he hoisted himself up and over the wall. Somnambulistically, he traversed the deserted streets to the Dewey House, where Sylvia breathed heavily in unruffleable sleep as he crawled into bed beside her and left the mystifying night behind.

When Burton Sharp awoke, it was afternoon. He was alone. He sat up and rubbed his bleary eyes, coaxing consciousness into his befogged mind. Encountering the day, he
fragmentarily recalled the night. A vague feeling of uncertain quietude passed over him. A calm amidst turbulence. He didn’t want to analyze it. He clambered out of bed and staggered to the window. Sylvia was reading in a chaise lounge under a broad umbrella on the private beach. He pulled on shorts and a shirt and stumbled downstairs and outside.

“Well, you must’ve had a bad night,” she said sympathetically.

“You might say that.”

“I was starting to worry. What’s going on?”

He ordered coffee and juice and a croissant. And he told her the story. About the first dream. And about the second–but no, it wasn’t a dream. And about the house. And the
figure. And the ghostly page.

“Either your imagination is getting richer or you’re losing your grip, my dear. Or maybe
you’ve just spent too much time with Hemingway.”

“Thanks for the confidence. But at least I understand something better than I used to.”

“What’s that?”

“‘The meaning of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment.’”

“What are you talking about?”

“What happened to Hemingway. Why it ended as it did. Not the suicide. That had more causes than it needed. But the regrets. The nostalgia. For the early days. All the adventure and the bravado and the books and the fame seemed to fall away at the end. And, like his old man of the sea, he went back to dreaming of the lions. When he was very poor and very happy at the beginning.”

“I’m not sure I follow you, but it sounds like you’ve found Hemingway’s ‘Rosebud.’  The
secret of a lost happiness?”

“Sort of. He had a love in his first marriage that he lost, or let go, and whose happiness he would never know again. Maybe that love reminded him of the nurse he had wanted
to marry in the Italian hospital during World War I, who broke his heart after he got well and whom he wrote about so fondly in A Farewell To Arms just after he had left his first wife, Hadley. Anyway, the end of his first marriage came to trouble and sadden him. But I think there was more to his regrets and nostalgia than the loss of an early love. He probably longed as much for Wordsworth’s rosebuds as for Charles Foster Kane’s.”

“Wordsworth’s rosebuds?”

“Yeah. The youthful feeling, or usually it’s youthful, of…how does it go?…the feeling of ‘something evermore about to be’ that makes us ‘set the budding rose above the rose full blown.’  You know how it is. In the beginning we have the optimism of ‘something ever more about to be.’ Later, our lives easily let us down. We lose ourselves in our successes as well as in our failures. We can even, unknowingly, become people we would not have wanted to be. Then, when we look back, our lives appear very different from what we had seen at the beginning, or what we had wanted to see. In the beginning Hemingway had his budding rose. Then he got what he wanted, or what he thought he wanted, and he became someone else. And he gave up a happiness he would later remember with sorrow. But he couldn’t see any of this until the end.”

“A rose is a rose is a rose.” Sylvia recited jocularly.

Burton shot her a mildly pained expression.

“Forgive me, Bertie. I didn’t mean to be dismissive. But you sound so grave. Is there more to this than Hemingway? You want to tell me about it?”

Burton didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what he felt. That ambiguous feeling of unsettled quietude was stirring inside him again. “It’s nothing,” he lied, and looked
blankly through her.

“Well, c’mon,” she said cheerfully, “before you lapse into hopeless melancholy. We can take a walk with what’s left of the day, have a drink and an early dinner, maybe go to a
movie or a cabaret. Forget Hemingway for a while. It’ll clear your head. How about it?”

Burton shrugged compliantly.

They changed clothes and dawdled through rest of the afternoon, exploring the town’s
cemetery for its witty epitaphs, touring the Truman White House for its reassuring Americana, and roving aimlessly until early evening brought them to another ocean-side cafe beside Mallory Square. There they again watched the sailboats skimming over the water and the parasailors flying against the sky. Then as the crowd began assembling for the nightly performances in the square, Burton felt that peculiar uncertain quietude of the morning well inside him where it had been percolating all day. Abruptly he blurted: “Let’s get out of here.”

“What do you mean? Don’t you want dinner? Where do you want to go? A movie?”

“I mean leave Key West. Now.”

“What?! Now? Why?”

“I’m not sure. I just want to get out of here. Do you mind? We can get a car and drive through the other Keys. Then fly home from Miami.”

Sylvia assented without understanding. She perceived more than a whim at work. He had been behaving strangely since they had arrived. But she knew how to pick her
battles, as well as how win without fighting.

They took a taxi back to their room, where Burton rearranged the flight plans and reserved a car. A convertible, Sylvia had suggested, to make the most of the trip. While
Sylvia started packing, Burton went into the bathroom for a quick shower. Toweling
off afterwards, he stood before the mirror. “My God!” he gasped. An unrecognizable, old face looked out at him. His hands rose impulsively and clutched at it. His eyes bulged. His mouth fell open. His heart pounded. With fumbling fingers he slathered foam over his cheeks. “One true sentence. One true sentence. Bullshit!” he hissed between gritted teeth as he swiped and hacked with the razor, back and forth, up and down. He rinsed off. Blood oozed from half a dozen nicks. The cropped gray beard was gone. He shoved the white hair back from his forehead, exposing a deeply receding hairline regularly
habitually by a studied comb-over. “To hell with…adulation!” he growled.

Grabbing his toiletries, he stalked into the bedroom.

“Whaaaaat’s this?” Sylvia exclaimed, catching sight of his face.

“You have to ask?” he mumbled, stuffing clothes into his suitcase.

“Ooohhh Kayyy,” she said, dropping the question, but guessing the answer. She came over and kissed him on the cheek. He paused and turned toward her

“You’re a bloody mess, you know, Bertie,” she said affectionately, dabbing his face with a tissue.

“So are you, Sylvie,” he whispered with the hint of a smile, lifting the tissue from her fingers and lightly wiping her smudged chin. He kissed her fondly on the forehead.

They finished packing and, bags in hand, headed out the door. Sylvia let Burton go in front as she stayed at the threshold to check the room, routinely guarding against
misplaced things. “Hey, Bertie,” she called, pointing to the night table, “you forgot your books.”

“No I didn’t,” he shouted back from the stairs and kept going.

Sylvia swung her head around toward the stairs. Burton had gone. She arched her eyebrows and pursed her lips in surprise. Moments passed. Then her lips parted and curled up a little at the corners. She nodded, and pulled the door closed behind her.

They paid the bill, with apologies and a penalty for the early departure. And, after a short taxi ride to the airport to get the car, they were off, top down. Traffic coming into Key West clogged the causeway linking this western-most Key to the others along narrow Route 1 and on to the mainland 160 miles away. But no traffic was going in their direction at this hour. They were going out, due east on an open road. Warm tropical air flowed over them. Burton at the wheel turned the radio up to hear above the hum of the road and the whoosh of the traffic. The cracking voice of an elderly Frank Sinatra was finishing a Sondheim song: “Send in the clowns…. There ought to be clowns.… Don’t bother.… They’re here.”  Burton and Sylvia exchanged slow smiles that grew into gentle laughter. He reached for her hand and took it in his and squeezed it hard. He said nothing. He didn’t need to. Sylvia knew. They were going back to the beginning.

Burton pressed the gas peddle to the floor. The wind rushed against their faces and flapped their hair. Overhead, wisps of high cirrus clouds were brightening with rays of gold and pink and lavender. Behind, the wide Western sky was a swirl of deepening orange and magenta and purple. In Mallory Square the crowd was applauding the sunset.

The Dancer With The Fish-shaped Eyes

 

          It was five years ago that I had first come to Madras. And I had liked it. Yes, it had the same air of restrained chaos that typifies Indian cities. Its streets and sidewalks teemed with people amid streams of honking vehicles, gypsy-like women clutching infants swarmed into traffic at stoplights to beg from captive drivers, hovels of the poor were strewn like rubbish along neglected thoroughfares, sprawling billboards boosted the melodramatic movies made in abundance here, and modern offices, ramshackle huts, and staid Victorian edifices stood shoulder to shoulder. But Madras also has a glistening sea shore on the Bay of Bengal, where the wide sandy Marina Beach runs for miles, giving reprieve from the heat while inviting bathers into a perilously sea that sharks have claimed as home.

            The city is called Chennai now, expunging another remnant of the Raj. But it looked the same.  I had come back to consult with an editor about an article I had agreed to write for her magazine. And I was planning to visit an acquaintance in the shipping business here whom I had met in Montevideo,Uruguay when he was there trying to buy a used tanker, and I was there researching an article on local artists, and we had found ourselves sitting together one night at a tango show.

            “The tango is very intense,” he had said to me as we walked out together returning to our hotels. “It is almost mythological, full of stories and passions. Classical Indian dance has that, too. But Indian dance is not about ordinary people. It is about ritual and religion. Have you seen Indian dance?”

            I had told him I had indeed seen it and even knew an Indian dancer in Madras.”

            Delighted that I knew his city, he had invited me to visit him at his home inMadrason my next trip toMadras. He promised to take me out for the best food in Indiaand to see the best Indian dancers in Madras. Now I was here taking him up on his offer.

           We went to a glittering restaurant where we dined on dishes from the four south Indian states, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, sumptuously mingling cinnamon and nutmeg and cumin and cayenne and tamarind and I don’t know what else, and reminding me why the early Europeans searched for a swift trade route to India. And the dancers were all that my friend had promised. Sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone, the graceful women riveted every gaze to the small polished marble stage where, to the music of a sitar and a drum, they elegantly performed movements and gestures and expressions that had descended from centuries past, wordlessly telling the epic stories of Hindu mythology. Angling their feet sideways and slapping them on the shiny stone, crooking their lithe arms and curving back their long fingers, alternately smiling and frowning while arching their eyebrows and widening their flashing eyes, they portrayed violence and love, fear and tenderness, defeat and victory, sorrow and joy. And they took me back to that time five years ago when inMadrasI had first seen the dancer with the fish-shaped eyes.

            Her name was Samya. It wasn’t that she was more beautiful or more graceful or more dramatic than other Indian dancers. But she was the first one I had truly watched closely. And I had watched her because I had talked to her, and because of her eyes.

            I had met her at lunch the day before with the same magazine editor I was here to see again. I was working at the time on an article for her about Hindu temple art. Samya was in her early twenties, I had guessed, and was the daughter of a friend of the editor. Indian parents are very protective of their daughters, she explained, even when those daughters Samya had grown up. So her highly educated, sophisticated parents had arranged for her to learn the trade of magazine editing under the tutelage of this kindly editor. Samya didn’t want to do it. She was quick to announce that. She wanted to be a classical dancer. But her parents wanted her to have a profession that would serve her better than dancing. So they had struck a compromise. She would learn editing if her parents would let her continue to study dance and to perform. She hoped her determination would exhaust their resistance.

            At lunch that day the three of us talked about art and writing and magazines. And Samya lectured me on Indian dance.

            “It is not just art,” she had said. “We’re not like you in the West. Our dance is more than dance. Our art is more than art. It is an act of ritual and spirit and life. Like the sculptures on Hindu temples. They are gods and goddesses, often swaying their hips, as in dance. And our most important god, Lord Shiva, who is the Destroyer of Evil, is also the God of Dance. He is often depicted dancing in victory over evil surrounded by a ring of flames. And his son Ganesh, who brings good luck, dances, too. If you want to understand Indian temple art, you must understand Indian dance, and to understand dance you must know temple art.”

             I had taken a few notes thinking I might use an anecdote for my article. Then I asked her what makes a good Indian dancer. She said that Indian dance may not look as difficult as Western classical ballet because the footwork is simpler. But the art of Indian dance isn’t in the footwork. It comes mainly through the hands and arms and face. You have to get every gesture and expression right. Then she said something that I will never forget.

           “A female dancer must become like a temple sculpture. All very sensuous and full and round, not like skinny Western dancers,” and she patted her cheeks and lips and shoulders and breasts and hips. “And you must learn to move your body in different directions at once and bend your fingers way back. And”–this is what I will not forget–“you have to have large fish-shaped eyes.” As she said this, she lifted a hand to her face in front of one eye, pinched her thumb and forefinger together, splayed her other fingers back, and opened a pointed elongated space between them. She had created a large fish-shaped eye. When she lowered her hand again, I could see, as I had not noticed before, that her own eyes were like that. Especially when she opened them full. They were firey dark and unnaturally big and bulging, the lids arching high in sensuous curves from beside her delicate nose and then sloping gently down to soft points near the edge of her face like a long fishes tail. She smiled with her full red lips. Yes, I could see. Hers was an Indian dancer’s face. I asked where I could see her perform. And I went there the next night.

           She was a temple sculpture come to life. Draped in radiant silks, her rounded form moved simultaneously in several directions as though born to it, while her bare feet pranced and slapped her arms and hands fluidly told the epic story along with dramatic expressions on her face. But arresting my stare were those large fish-shaped eyes. Yeats was right, I had said to myself–in her you cannot tell the dancer from the dance.

           I did not see her dance again because I had had leaveMadrasthe next day. And in the five years since I had seen many other Indian dancers. Always I had watched their fish-shaped eyes. But I had never seen eyes as large as hers. Now, as I watched more dancers dance the ancient Indian tales, captivating the room, I thought, yes, these are wonderful dancers, but they cannot match Samya. And I wondered, what happened to her? Was she dancing and living the dancer’s life she had wanted to live?  Or did she give it up to become an editor? Or did she get married and settle into another life? Since I was having lunch with my editor the following day, I would ask. She would know.

           When the evening ended, and I thanked my friend for generously giving me more fond memories ofMadras, I was already looking forward to lunch. And as soon as our lunch business was done, I asked my editor what Samya was doing now. This is what she said.

            “Samya continued to study dance, and she finally convinced her parents that she could be a successful professional. And she became one of the best classical dancers inMadras. But then one night there was an accident. She fell down some stairs back stage  before a performance. They found her unconscious with a leg badly broken at the knee. No one saw it happen. She later explained that she lost her balance after stepping on a something sharp in her bare feet. She was in the hospital for weeks. Then she had worn a cast for many weeks.  She feared she would never be able to dance again, not in the way she wanted to. And when she was able to try, she was right. She couldn’t do it. She tried and tried for months, but she couldn’t bend her knee completely or balance on that leg. Eventually, she gave up. She started teaching young dancers. And I invited her to write about dance for the magazine, which she did for a while. Her parents were pleased about that, although there were, of course, sorry about the reason. Then she got engaged to a long-time admirer, whom she knew would always adore her and be good to her. Her parents were happy about that, too. But her heart wasn’t in it. Any of it. You could see that in her face.

           “Then one day she didn’t come to the office as she had said she would . She left no message. And she wasn’t at home. We couldn’t find her. No one knew where she had gone. She said nothing to anyone. She just disappeared.

           “It was more than a week later that I got a call from a police officer I knew who was helping us search for her. He asked me to come down to the medical examiner’s office. They had recovered the remains of an unidentified woman washed up on Marina Beach. The sharks had been surprisingly kind to her, he said. They had left her relatively untouched. A couple of other things were also unusual, he added. ‘She is dressed in a dancer’s silks,’ he told me, ‘and she has the most remarkable fish-shaped eyes.’”

RAFFLES

 

RAFFLES

by James Sloan Allen

 

             Stuart Murphy swung his car onto the highway, joining the daily throng into the city. Horns honked. Fumes swirled. Traffic crawled. He peered emptily through the windshield.

            “The world is too much with us,” he sighed; “late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

            Stuart knew his Wordsworth.  And he relished nice literary phrases. A middle-aged former literature professor, he was driving from his Scarsdalehome to the office in New York Citywhere he now edited scholarly books and The Journal of European Literary Traditions. Favorite lines of literature often got him through the day, punctuating the tedium of work–reading dull manuscripts. writing dull letters.

            “But what did Wordsworth know about the world being ‘too much with us’?” he mused, oblivious to the sea of cars ebbing and flowing around him. The question stirred his professorial imagination, and he went on earnestly: “Wordsworth’s world was so much simpler than ours. And yet it had so much more–what?–weight to it.  Everything nowadays is so ephemeral.  Novelty.  Fashion.  Celebrity.  They’re all anybody cares about.  It’s all so…shallow.  So…inconsequential.”

            These complaints were not new to Stuart.  But today they struck him harder than usual.  Thinking back to Wordsworth, he picked up the thread and started mouthing a lecture. “People cared about real things then.  History.  Society.  Philosophy.  Literature.  They knew their literary lines, too. Clichés, maybe.  But who today even knows what a good literary cliché is?”  Stuart paused to absorb the idea. “A good cliché, a really good cliché,” he continued, pleased with his unfolding insight, “is more than an advertising jingle or a bit of banal movie dialogue.  It’s more like an epiphany.  It reveals something every time you hear it.”

            The blaring horns of cars behind him jolted Stuart out of his meditations.  He propelled the car forward, lost his train of thought, and after a mentally vacant drive arrived at his office bracing for another day of routine.  Closing the door behind him, he sat down at his desk, leaned back in his chair, and again let his mind drift.

            “I would prefer not to.”

            The passively defiant words of Melville’s Bartleby rose to Stuart’s lips. He chuckled.

            “Now, that is a good cliché.  A life-affirming idea.  It signals something important.”

            The phrase took hold of him.

            “I would prefer not to,” he repeated. “And maybe,” Stuart whispered through clenched teeth, “I won’t!  I’ll just walk away. Go someplace where the world isn’t ‘too much with us.  But where?”

            “I could just get in the car and drive,” he thought. “But that would be no change. Europe?  No. That’s about the same.  It has to be farther away.  The other side of the world.

            “Hong Kong?  Too commercial.”

            “Bangkok?  Lethal traffic.”

            “Bali?  Tourists.”

            “Singapore?”  The sound appealed.  And so did the image formed by fiction and movies. The Crossroads of the Orient, and all of that. “But it’s modern now,” Stuart reflected. “And it’s got a repressive political regime. Still, it is as far away as I could go. And there’s a great old hotel where famous authors have stayed.”

            “But could I really do it?” he asked himself.  “Can I really leave? Just like that, if only for a while?”

            He had no family.  Only an inheritance.  And he had a career. “But what,” he questioned dismissively, “is that?”

            Within the month, Stuart Murphy was on his way.  The twenty-four hour flight throughTokyoleft him drained.  And yet, as the plane touched down, he felt exhilarated.  He was on the other side of the world.       

            “Welcome toSingapore,” came the pleasing voice on the plane’s loud speaker. “The local time is 6 PM.”

            No one said: “Have a nice day.”  That was a good sign.

            Stuart had heard that Chiangi airport is perhaps the best in the world–large, clean, efficient.  But he was not prepared for the futuristic setting that greeted him.

            Vast expanses of glistening cleanliness.  No crowds.  Polite service personnel.  An electric monorail to whisk him from the plane to the baggage claim where the bags were already waiting. It was not exactly exotic.  But it felt fine.

            The drive into town flowed peacefully along a wide uncrowded highway through a lush and manicured landscape.  The calm and beauty were idyllic.

            Then the city came into view. Stuart’s heart sank.  It looked like Seattle.  Or Houston.  A skyline of towering mirrored-glass buildings designed by Western architects.

            “My God!” he thought. “Did I make a mistake?”          

            Once in the urban maze, the taxi soon wheeled into the broad driveway of Raffles Hotel.  The hotel looked strikingly like the photographs taken a century earlier–the gracefully ornate three-story Victorian facade distinctively angled at each end toward the entrance and capped by a classical pediment in the center, with a welcoming portico stretching across the front. But now the hotel had recently been restored to appear almost new, pristine, and whiter than snow. Remembering that in the early photographs Raffles had stood on the harbor, Stuart surveyed the scene. No harbor. Only glass-and-steel behemoths looking down on the picturesque nineteenth-century hotel like predators on a prey. They had pushed the harbor out of sight.      

            Spurning the blight, Stuart turned toward the hotel’s imperial entrance, where a resplendent red carpet, extending to the driveway, glowed against the white surroundings, and where liveried doormen were poised at attention.  They drew open the doors, and he strode into the lobby.  The red carpet led across a bright marble floor to an imposing mahogany staircase.  An atrium rose with the stairs and its landings to the height of the building.  From the base of the stairway to the walls he saw to his delight the chairs and tables, flowers and potted palms of the “Authors’ Lounge,” which had long enticed visitors for refreshment amidst the ghosts of renowned guests like Joseph Conrad, Noel Coward, and Somerset Maugham–especially Somerset Maugham, who, so the hotel liked to imply, had visited Raffles many a time. Stuart knew all about them.  He began to feel that he had come to the right place.

            “Greetings, Mr. Murphy,” said the desk clerk graciously. “We have been expecting you. The Somerset Maugham Suite is ready as you requested.”

            He signed the register and followed the bellboy outside along a covered corridor encircling a courtyard.  The heat now hit him for the first time.  Heavy, wet, tropical heat that evoked images of explorers slashing through jungles and colonial bureaucrats sweatily conducting the affairs of empire.  He liked that.

            They reached their destination. “Somerset Maugham Suite,” read the plaque on the door.  “This was Mr. Somerset Maugham’s suite when he stayed here,” announced the bellboy.   He undid the latch. Stuart stepped into a sitting room as cool as mountain air.   A chilled ice bucket holding a bottle of champagne rested on a dining table beside a bowl of tropical fruit.  Photographs of Somerset Maugham hung on the wall. An archway opened into a large bedroom where oriental carpets lay on a dark hardwood floor around a massive bed.  A ceiling fan rotated noiselessly.  In one corner stood a desk studiously strewn with Maugham’s books and memorabilia.

            Stuart tipped the bellboy, who quietly vanished. He approached the desk, fingering its surface, and sat down in its worn leather chair. He picked up a sheet of stationery and read the letterhead: “Raffles Hotel. Somerset Maugham Suite.” 

            Stuart smiled, drank in the atmosphere, and thought, “Yes. I have escaped.”

            He sat there for a while, his yearning to explore fighting with exhaustion. Aided by thirst and hunger, exploration won out.  Searching the hotel guide, Stuart noticed the Long Bar, birthplace of the Singapore Sling.  Perfect.

            A winding stairway on the far side of the hotel delivered Stuart to a barroom that could have been a stage set for a nineteen-forties movie in Singapore–smoky air, rattan furniture, ceiling fans, cages of tropical birds, languorous patrons sipping tall fruit-filled beverages.  Stuart sank into a chair along the wall and ordered a Singapore Sling. It came in no time, and was gone just as fast, the sharpness of the gin enfolded in pink sweetness.  It was as sweet as children’s punch.  He ordered another.  Feeling the spirit of the place, he craned to hear what other patrons were saying.  The indistinctness of their covert voices fed his curiosity.

            The second drink went down even easier than the first. And then a third. The room began to grow a bit hazy, the figures in it distant, the sounds of voices, the clinking of glasses, the squawking of the caged birds, grew muffled. It was all taking on an air of unreality.

            “No. This is reality,” Stuart assured himself. “A fiction come to life. All that Somerset Maugham and Hollywood movies had portrayed. The old Singapore, where intrigues were hatched, liaisons were hidden, and forlorn souls came to lose themselves forever. It’s delicious.”

            Delicious. The word awakened Stuart from his reveries. Hunger gripped him. Recalling the hotel’s Tiffin Room, where, he had heard, you could get the best Indian food in southeast Asia, he signed the check and went out into the night. The air was torpid and fragrant. Stuart breathed it in voluptuously as he made his way through the palms and hibiscus.

            The Tiffin Room’s lights radiated welcomingly through the windows, beckoning Stuart like a moth to a flame.  Entering, he was engulfed in the scents of curry and countless other spices rising from the buffet of pakuras and samosas, chutneys and vindaloos, biryanies and jalfrazies.  He piled his plate high, seated himself beneath a fan near gently wafting palm fronds, ordered an Indian beer, and feasted.  As he scanned the room, he was amused to see other patrons dressed in their natty whites playing the role of colonials, casually snapping their fingers to summon the crisply uniformed and obedient waiters.

            “A colonial theme park,” he said to himself. “That’s what Raffles is. Renovated to recapture the past as pictured by writers and movie makers and tourists. Better than the original, though, I am sure.”

            By the time Stuart returned to his room he was drifting along blissfully on alcohol and the sensation that he had found what he had been looking for. He stretched out on the bed and reached for a volume of Maugham’s stories on the night table. Flipping through it, he paused at “Rain.”  He knew it well.  The tale of Sadie Thompson, a harlot who seduces a Christian priest in Samoa.  The tropics had got the better of the priest.

            Thumbing farther he came to “The Fall of Edward Barnard.’ Stuart followed its account of an ambitious young man who abandons a promising commercial career in Chicago for the dissolute idleness of Tahiti. Friends seek him out to save him. But they fail. Edward Barnard will not go home. Stuart lingered over the closing line, ruefully spoken by the young man’s former fiancée: “Poor Edward.” 

            “Poor Edward, indeed,” Stuart thought as he closed his eyes and let sleep overcome him.

           Stuart got up the next day still fatigued from jet lag. But breakfast in the courtyard revived him, and he set out to see the old Singapore.

            “Bugis Street,” he instructed the taxi driver, naming the street where generations of male travelers had sampled the bawdy pleasures of the exotic East.

            “And I’d like to see the Arab quarter.”

            “Very good,” said the driver in barely accented English.

            They drove through block after block of new office buildings.  Pedestrians in Western business clothes crowded the sidewalks. It was “rush hour.”  A modern city on its way to work.  But something seemed odd.  The traffic. There were few cars on the streets. No honking horns.

            “Where is all the traffic?” he asked.

            “Restricted zone,” came the reply.  “At certain times of the day you have to pay a fee to drive into the center of the city.”

            The driver pointed to a permit attached to his windshield.  “You get one of these when you enter the zone. The government does this to keep traffic out.”

            The car pulled to the curb at a roadside police station, where an official retrieved the permit. Above them an arch spanned the wide avenue, emblazoned with the words: “Restricted Zone.”

            “The government is very strict,” the driver explained as they resumed the trip beyond the city center. “But people benefit. The streets are clean.  The schools are good. Everyone owns their own apartment, with government help.  We all save money. And there is no crime. How can anyone live in America,” he added, “with so much crime and violence?”

            Taking the bait, Stuart spoke up, drawing on his newspaper  knowledge. “But are you free to do and say what you want?  Here you can be put in jail for all kinds of things, can’t you, even for just buying chewing gum or dropping paper on the street or criticizing the government?  And you can get officially caned for an adolescent prank.”

            “You Americans have strange ideas of freedom,” the driver responded soberly. “Here we are free to live a good life in safety, and to have respect. In America you are free to show disrespect and to be poor and to rob and kill. Who is better off?”

            Stuart sat back in silence thinking of New York City where crimes occur every few minutes. “What is real?” he asked himself. “Maybe you can invent a world.  Just as Raffles is a colonial theme park, Singapore is an urban theme park, a perfectly ordered city. An adult Disneyland with people living in it.  What kind of freedom is there in Disneyland, anyway?  Who cares?  And isn’t Disneyland a model of what people think the world should be?  Clean?  Safe?  Prosperous?  Contented?”

            Unsure of his own conclusions, Stuart gazed through the taxi window. The modern office towers had yielded to low older buildings. The pedestrians were less Western-looking now than those earlier, but nothing he hadn’t seen at home. Finally the taxi came to a stop in front of an open market. Stalls filled with oranges, pomegranates, melons, durian, and other fruits and vegetables extended far from the street.

            “This is it,” said the driver.

            “What?”

            “Bugis Street.”

            “This? What do you mean? It’s just a marketplace.”

            “The old Bugis Street was torn down,” explained the driver. “The government didn’t like it because it attracted trouble. Now it’s a market for everyone.”

            “There is nothing here to see,” Stuart said disappointedly. “Let’s go to the Arab quarter.”

            “Oh, you have seen that already.  We drove through on the way here. Muslims were selling goods on the sidewalk.  You want to go back to the mosque?”

            “No.” Stuart had seen mosques.  He had hoped for an ethnic enclave with colorful costumes and native customs.  “Let’s go to the Chinese quarter.”

            “OK.”

            The taxi went off toward the other side of the city, circling the Restricted Zone on a broad avenue that rolled through residential neighborhoods and landscaped hillsides. Eventually they turned down a narrow street and entered a section of rather tawdry-looking shops. Chinese were everywhere. The taxi eased around tight corners and came to a stop.

            “This is the oldest Buddhist temple in Singapore,” said the driver. “You can go in.”

            Climbing from the car, Stuart saw a weathered wooden doorway squeezed within a block of shops.  Through it he could see an open courtyard clouded with incense.  He stepped inside tentatively. Votaries were kneeling here and there, and Buddhist priests were performing rites.  A few tourists were viewing artifacts of Buddhist piety.  Stuart sensed an atmosphere of Buddhist detachment from the world, the temple an island of contemplation and transcendence–except for the intrusion of tourists.

            Raising his eyes to the sky above, Stuart caught sight of dragons curling from the corners of the temple roof toward the heavens, warding off evil spirits.  They signaled the confidence of faith and tradition.  Then beyond the dragons, Stuart’s eyes focused on other forms.  The skyscrapers of modern Singapore rose just blocks away, piercing the heavens indifferently. Against this backdrop, the temple dragons’ soaring defiance of evil fell into a theatrical gesture, a quaint dumb show.

            “Could any Buddhist believe in the efficacy of temple dragons after seeing this?” he wondered.

            “How old is this temple?”  Stuart asked one of the priests who was doubling as a guide.

            “It is the oldest in Singapore,” he answered proudly. “A hundred and fifty years.”

            “But Buddhism is thousands of years old,” Stuart retorted. “Weren’t there Buddhists here before that?”

            “Who knows?  Before the British came there were only fishermen.”

            “Uh, huh,” Stuart responded uncertainly.

            “Maybe that is the clue to Singapore,” he thought. “It’s not an Asian city at all.  It has no history before the British.  It’s a colonial city.  A creation of old Stamford Raffles himself,” who, as Stuart knew from his tourist researches, had established a British outpost around 1820.  “So Raffles Hotel is about as authentic as anything here.”

            Gratified at this discovery, Stuart returned to the taxi.

            “Is there a real Singapore?” he asked the driver.

            “What do you mean?”

            “I mean a Singapore that represents what Singapore really is?”

            “Orchard Road, I guess,” the driver replied with a hint of hesitation.      

            “Take me there.”

            Back again onto the wide avenues. Up and down the rolling manicured hills. In twenty minutes they arrived at the top of a busy commercial thoroughfare.

            “Orchard Road,” announced the driver.            

            Stuart’s eyes took in the real Singapore. Garish hotels and glittery shopping malls, chrome storefronts and neon signs, movies theaters and fast food outlets lined the street as far as Stuart could see.

            “You can buy anything here,” the driver declared. “Clothes.  Jewelry.  Carpets.  Cameras. Televisions.  Cars.  Anything.  Do you want to get out and walk?”

            “No,” Stuart sighed. “I think I’ll just go back to the hotel. ‘The world is too much….,’” he grumbled.      

            Stuart closed the door of the suite behind him with relief.  The coolness and quiet isolation were a balm. He poured a drink and ordered something to eat.  Then he lay down on the bed.  The overhead fan softly stirred the air with its silent, hypnotic rotations.  Taking up the Maugham volume, he opened it at random.  “I was in Pagan, in Burma, the narrator of the story “Mabel” began, and from there I took the steamer to Mandalay”.  Stuart was again in the world he had come to find.

            He could not remember just when he fell asleep, but when he awoke the next day he could hear the sound of rain on the leaves outside. It was a comforting sound, assuring him that he could avoid the “real world” for a while.

            “I’ll just stay in the hotel today,” he decided firmly.

            After ordering breakfast he studied the hotel plan again to chart an itinerary.  Restaurants.  Shops.  Pool.  Bar. The usual.

            “But what’s this?  A museum?  A hotel museum?  This could be amusing.”

            Breakfast arrived promptly, served on the parlor table from where Stuart watched the rain outside. It was pouring so densely that he could hardly make out the main wing of the hotel across the courtyard. And yet it was gentle not harsh.

            “Ah, tropical rain,” he said to himself. “Torrential and drenching. But soft and warm.”

            After finishing the mangoes and croissants, Stuart left for the museum. The canopied corridor sheltered him from the rain while letting the moisture permeate the air. It led him past hotel shops–Oriental Antiques, Hassan’s Carpets, dozens of others–until it took him up a flight of stairs to Raffles Museum. Walking in, he found himself amidst memorabilia of Singapore’s history as an outpost of empire and a stopping place for wayfarers. Photographs, decals, correspondence, newspapers, as well as emblems of other colonial hotels which, along with Raffles, had “civilized” the East for Western travelers long ago–the Oriental in Bangkok, the Grand in Rangoon, the Continental in Saigon, the Peninsula in Hong Kong, the Cathay in Shanghai.

            “Those were the days,” he thought as he examined  the artifacts. “The days of real travel, when the East was far away.”

            A framed newspaper story caught his eye. “Tiger shot at Raffles,” blazoned the headline of The Straits Times.  The year was 1902.  He leaned forward to read the harrowing account in the mock melodramatic style of the day:

            A day or two ago, Stripes, a tiger belonging to a native

            show broke from captivity and to all intents and purposes

            disappeared.  The watchman alleges that the tiger

            interviewed him and after giving him

                                            A Few Friendly Scratches

            made off, presumably swimming gaily up the Singapore river.

            From this point he was missed until the closing hour of the

            Raffles Billiard Room last night when, Lo and Behold! he

            stared through the verandah railing of the Billiard Room and

            gave the bar “boy” a stiff shock.  This was rather

                                            Too Much For The “Boy”

            who promptly secluded himself and awaited developments.

            Finding the tiger did not seek a personal interview with

            him, the “boy” stealthily emerged, and “scooted”!, hurried

            by sundry scratches from under the floor beneath the

            billiard table. Mr Phillips of Raffles Institution was         

            roused from his bed and, taking his rifle, proceeded to

           the scene of the action                                      

                                              In His Pajamas.

            The tiger was still under the floor. There was no doubt

            about that. Yet no amount of peering into the gloom could

            discover his presence. At last the hunters got sight of the

            tiger. That is to say, they

                                              Saw His Eyes Gleaming.

            Mr. Phillips put one of those nasty hollow-nosed bullets

            right between the pair of eyes, and Stripes laid down

            and died

                                               Dead As A Nail.

            A museum note somberly reported that this was the last tiger killed in Singapore.

            Stuart liked the story. And the style. And the museum. He bought some reproductions of old photographs and some luggage stickers and went to find the Billiard Room where valiant Stripes had met his doom.

            The rain was still coming down in sheets. Stuart was glad. It gave him a pleasant feeling of tropical isolation.

            As he left the museum he passed before a shop window where a mannequin stood in a dashing white double-breasted linen suit and white fedora. He eyed his own non-descript American outfit and said, “I must have it.”

            A few minutes later, Stuart Murphy emerged transformed.  The suit, the hat, a silky white shirt, a floral tie, and woven leather shoes made him into a character out of the fiction and old movies he adored.  In his late Fifties, slender and a bit over six feet tall but slightly stooped, his aging faced lined more from thought than from experience, Stuart now floated along the corridor with a new-born panache.  Admiring his reflection in the shop windows, he was all he imagined himself to be.  A man of the world, thriving on adventure and rich with marvelous memories.

            He found the fabled Bar and Billiard Room standing a few yards from the main building near the front. It had not changed since the early photographs–or it had been changed back again. 

            “I would like to sit near the billiard table, if I may,” he asked the waiter with decorous politeness  They circled around the bar to the far end of the room.  There stood the table, its green felt gaming area brightly lit against the rich dark wood of the room.  Shuttered windows let in a soft illumination from the gray day outside.  Rain pelted the roof.

            Stuart sat down and ordered a drink, conjuring up visions of the hapless tiger and the ferocious hunter in his pajamas who had made history here.  Not world history, but history all the same.

            Looking around the warm convivial room, he saw the usual tourists and businessmen who had made the modern Singapore an economic boom town. Yet they all seemed rather like bit characters in the drama he was living. He felt at home. He belonged here more than they did.

            The rain continued intermittently for days.  Stuart stayed in the hotel.

            Finally, the weather changed.  Stuart did not leave.

            A week went by.  Then another.  Stuart stayed on.  He was often seen in the public rooms. The Long Bar. The Tiffin Room. The Bar and Billiard Room. The Authors’ Lounge. The Museum. The shops.  But he ventured no farther.  His white suit and fedora became a familiar sight.  As did the dog-eared copies of Somerset Maugham that seemed an inseparable part of his attire.

            Most of the staff came to know and like him.  He was always polite.  And he left good tips.

            “Good morning, Sir. What will you be doing today?”

            “Oh, I think I’ll just stay in and do some reading.”

            “Good afternoon, sir.  What are you reading today?  More of the same?”

            “Ah, yes.”

            “Good evening, sir.  Will you be with us much longer?”

            “Indeed I will.”

            One morning as Stuart was preparing for another of these sublimely repetitious days, the telephone rang. 

            “Good morning, sir.  This is the manager.  I would like to speak to you about your bill. I am afraid your credit card will no longer accept charges.  I must therefore ask you to arrange to settle your outstanding bills and arrange for future payments before we can continue to provide you services.”

            “I am terrible sorry,” Stuart replied cordially.  “I don’t know how this could have happened.  I will take care of it immediately.”

            Stuart sent a FAX to his accountant back home:

            “Please wire me $30,000 at once and see that my credit card charges are          covered from now on. Do whatever you must–SM”

             The transaction completed, Stuart lay down on the bed to await the wire. He reached for Maugham.

            When the money came, accompanied by a laconic note from the accountant–”What the hell are you doing?!”–Stuart paid his balance and assured the manager that there would be no further misunderstandings.

            More weeks went by. He had to move from the Somerset Maugham Suite occasionally to accommodate other guests who had booked it long in advance, but he always came back.

           Communications from his accountant became more urgent and exasperated.

            “Your reserves are dwindling. I take no responsibility!  Come to your                              senses!!”

             “Just do what I ask!–SM”

              “The cash is nearly gone. What are you going to do!!?” Are you crazy!”

              “Sell! Stocks. The art collection. The house. The car. Everything. It means                                   nothing to me!–SM “

             All the while, Stuart never strayed from Raffles.

            But a change was coming over him. He receded almost completely from the world outside. He never read a newspaper or a magazine.  He wandered the hotel aimlessly. And he would sit for hours in the Authors’ Lounge reading Maugham and watching people passing through the lobby.

            In time, the change took another turn.  Stuart began to talk to people. Tentatively at first, then with accumulating confidence, he would approach waiters, shop keepers, hotel guests, as if to share a confidence.  Once he had their ear, he would tell them of his adventures and of the peculiar characters he had known.

            “When I was in Chiang Mai before the war,” he might whisper to a waiter, “I knew a man not unlike that one over there,” pointing to a lone diner at a neighboring table. “He wanted to sell me his business there because his wife had run off with a missionary. I declined, knowing how bad luck clings to things in the Orient.”

            Or drawing close to a guest in the Authors’ Lounge or the Long Bar he would share his memories of intrigues in Jakarta and loves in Papeete, of mysteries in Denpasar and discoveries in Calcutta, of dangers in Macau and seductions in Shanghai.  Listeners usually grew curious.  Some would relate incidents of their own.  Then they would excuse themselves and go away.

            Eventually, Stuart added another twist to his behavior. He started to write. At first he appeared to be idly writing letters. Then his concentration deepened. With heated intensity he began  filling page after page of stationery from the Somerset Maugham suite. The waiters could not have failed to notice.   

            “You write a lot these days, sir,” one of them observed while serving a drink. “If I may ask, are you writing a book?”

            “Oh,”  Stuart replied, “I am writing about many things, places I have been, people I have known. Human nature is so peculiar, you know. Let me tell you about a time when I was in Kathmandu….”

            “Uh, excuse me sir,” interrupted the waiter, “I am being called.”

            Stuart picked up his pen again. “Kathmandu in winter,” he began, “was the perfect place for a hunted man to hide….”

            As more weeks went by, Stuart steeped himself ever deeper in his work. Each day brought a new outpouring of creative energy. The pages piled up. His life was full of meaning. He moved among his haunts exuding a strange combination of distraction and concentration. His white suit grew yellowed and unkempt, his fedora stained and shapeless.

            Early one morning a knock came at his door. Stuart opened it to see the manager.

            “Mr. Murphy.  I am afraid you have another large unpaid bill. Your credit cards have been canceled.  Mail to your bank and your accountant is being returned unopened.  So we cannot continue to accommodate you.”

            “I beg your pardon?”

            “Mr. Murphy,” the manager repeatedly emphatically, “you have no funds. You seem to have no one to assist you. And quite frankly, Mr. Murphy, I regret to tell you that you have become something of an embarrassment to the hotel. I have no choice but to inform you that you are must leave Raffles.”

            “Oh, there is some mistake,” Stuart said with assurance. “You want someone else. Surely you know me. My name and initials are everywhere. Look.”  He pointed to the plaque on the door. And he displayed the SM engraved on the cufflinks clasping the frayed cuffs of his favorite shirt, and gestured toward the luggage stacked against the wall. “After all,” he went on, “I do a lot of my writing at Raffles. On my personal stationery, see.”  He plucked a sheet of it from the table.  “And many of my books are here. I would be happy to autograph one of them for you, if you would like.”

            The manager started to object but thought better of it.  After a pause, he simply said, “I will look into the matter further. Forgive me for disturbing you.”

            Stuart closed the door satisfied and prepared for another day of work. He made a feeble attempt to straighten his suit, donned his disheveled hat, gathered up a batch of stationery and a book of Maugham stories and departed for the Authors’ Lounge.

            He settled into his usual chair advantageously situated in a corner from where he could view the comings and goings of hotel guests. It was home to him now. Placing the stationery on the cocktail table in front of him, he leaned back and let the book fall open in his lap. The pages fanned. He looked down as they rested at the story “Honolulu.”

            “The wise traveler travels only in the imagination.”

            Stuart didn’t need to read this opening line.  He could recite it from memory.  And often did  It was a good cliché.  He reached for some stationery, took out his pen, and began to write:

            “The tramp steamer cast off as the dawn came up in a summer haze, and a blanket of stifling heat descended upon Singapore. We were headed for Pago Pago. But where didn’t matter. We were on the sea again….”

            Stuart’s concentration was broken by the voice of the bellboy: “Mr. Maugham.  Paging Mr. Somerset Maugham.”

            Patrons in the lobby and the Authors’ Lounge looked quizzically at the bellboy striding toward the odd figure in the rumpled white suit sitting in the corner, his arm raised to attract the boy’s attention.

            “Mr. Maugham, the manager would like to invite you to his office. Would you be so kind as to come with me.”

            “Certainly,” Stuart said graciously.  “Maybe he wants to apologize for this morning,” he thought, “or perhaps to plan a reception for some of the guests to meet me and take photographs.  That’s always good public relations for a hotel.”

            Stuart got up and, donning his hat and his cosmopolitan air, followed the boy through the lobby.  He nodded at attentive guests, pleased to be known and admired. From the lobby, the boy led Stuart down a hallway that Stuart hadn’t seen before. Stuart wondered how he could have missed it.

            They came to an unmarked door at the back of the hotel.  The bellboy knocked.  The door opened.  “Please come in,” the manager said, as he ushered Stuart into a small room where, in the soft light filtering through shuttered windows, the Singaporean police were waiting.         

 

Hadrian’s Moon

 

James Sloan Allen

           I woke up smiling. It had happened again. How many times? Over how many years?  It had started on an early trip to Rome with my husband, George.

The morning had come early that day. And the night had run late, carried along by convivial voices resounding over the cobblestones and echoing off antique walls in the piazza outside our hotel. Our piazza was noisier than most, attracting tourists and Romans to socialize in its outdoor cafes and to lounge around the fountain in front of the Pantheon. We had wanted to stay here anyway, in an old hotel on the Piazza della Rotunda. Just to look out the window at the most perfect building in the world.

Squeezing sleep from my eyes that morning, I could see gray light seeping through the tall thick wooden shutters that enclosed the windows and that had muffled, without silencing, the sounds from outside during the night. I drew in the windows and pushed out the shutters. And there it was. The Pantheon. Its magnificent colonnaded portico crowned by a pointed pediment, and its graceful dome rising above to the hole-in-the-top oculus, an eye open to the sky. Standing almost exactly as it has for almost two thousand years, ever since the emperor Hadrian built it to honor the Roman gods. Hadrian, it had always pleased me to remember, was one of those five good emperors when Edward Gibbon had said presided over “the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.”  I knew things like that as a student of Roman history. And I had liked that about Hadrian. I liked Gibbon, too, for his extravagant praise of the good emperors, and for saying that he had decided to write of Rome’s decline and fall one evening while “musing amid the ruins” of the half-buried Roman Forum as “barefoot friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter.”  I could never visit Rome without picturing the melancholy Gibbon sitting in the ruins listening to the friars’ evensong in the eighteenth century and resolving to tell the world how this greatest of all empires had fallen, leaving its capital to barefoot friars.

But the Pantheon remained. The impeccable, enduring Pantheon, the one unruined monument of ancient Rome, almost as perfect now as ever–probably because the Christians, like those singing friars in the Forum, had made a church of it. And yet, I remembered, how curious it was that Hadrian had claimed no credit for building it. The bold Latin inscription across the pediment reads: “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul for the third time, built this.” A historical red herring, I would explain to my students. Once historical memory of the Pantheon’s origins was lost, history had understandably attributed the Pantheon to Agrippa, the renowned general who had defeated Marc Anthony and had become second-in-command to the first Roman emperor, Augustus, and who had built an original temple on this site a hundred years before Hadrian. Hadrian got no credit for the Pantheon until the 1890s, when industrious archeologists unearthed evidence that it had arisen during his reign and had simply retained the original inscription to Agrippa in an act of deference that Hadrian commonly observed . I liked this story of the good emperor, too. Very Roman.

Rome is full of such curiosities, if not such architectural perfection. It is a mongrel city, made of bits and pieces of history jumbled together in a dozen styles. You never know what will turn up around the next corner. A Roman ruin. A random column. A Medieval gargoyle. A Renaissance fountain. A Baroque church. A lively piazza. Cataloguing the styles that morning, I had noticed a pair of banners hanging on a wire beside the Pantheon announcing festivities for the completion of a year-long renovation of the piazza. The asphalt surface had been replaced by cobblestones, returning the Piazza della Rotunda to its historic character, before it was given over to automobiles. We go forward to the past, sometimes, I had thought, even in Rome.

That is where my morning reveries had stopped that day. And where my story had begun. For I had caught sight of a human figure in front of the Pantheon barely visible in the rising light. It looked like an old woman cloaked in black, a cowl shrouding her head, and bent forward almost at a right angle, leaning on a cane. A crone preparing to beg, perhaps? But the hour was much too early for that. Why was she there?

Staring more intently, I detected an animal at her feet. Then two. Then three. Ah, Roman cats. You can’t be here long without seeing them. They slink along alleys, flash through entry ways, doze in cafes. They’re everywhere. I wondered how they survive, who feeds them. Or are they just another of Rome’s native curiosities? Part of a mongrel city as hospitable to cats as it is to history and to history’s ruins.

A cluster of these cats now entwined themselves around the feet of the crone, as she posed before the Pantheon like a drooping specter. The light was up now, and the first rays of the sun were catching the rooftops. Sounds of sweeping and of water spraying against the cobblestones ended dawn’s silence. The city was awakening.

I watched the piazza come to life. Workers sprayed off yesterday’s dust, vendors opened news stands, waiters arranged tables and chairs at the outdoor cafes, delivery men hauled food from trucks parked in the narrow side streets. And sunlight began falling across the columns of the Pantheon from the side, grazing each one with a thin band of light, then bathing the façades of the sixteenth-century buildings bordering the piazza on the west and calling to life the colorful mural of a Madonna, or some other innocent, on the upper floor of one of those façades.

I don’t know just how long I stayed there that morning leaning on the window sill and musing on two thousand years of Roman history greeting the day. But the first tourists broke the spell. Following their predictable path from the wide Piazza Navona a few streets to the west toward the cramped Fountain of Trevi close by on the east, they would quickly become hoards, reminding any Romanophile that much of the eternal city now exists mainly for transients. Another irony.

Before turning away, I looked at her again. The crone. Still standing at the front of the Pantheon in her crooked pose, bent at the middle, the cowl covering her face, one frail hand propping herself up with a cane, the other now stretching out for alms. Cats lying at her feet. She was working the tourists after all. And some of them were complying, dropping lira into her hand, while others held back, snapping pictures of the decrepit, spectral figure against the great pagan temple. Perhaps she was a con artist who had an act that she knew many tourists couldn’t resist. Who knows, she might live in a comfortable house on the outskirts and travel here by car for her performance.

With this disillusioning fantasy, I had turned from the window and begun readying for a day of tourism. We were quite young then, and George was always a willing, if slightly cynical, tourist. But we were going to avoid the usual “sights.” That day we wanted to find a different Rome. So we strolled back streets that most visitors neglect and walked along the Tiber River that wends through the city nearly hidden by its banks, a trickle that goes practically ignored compared to the Seine in Paris or the Thames in London. We explored Trastevere across the river where working people live and few tourists go because it is a thriving part of Rome, not a monument. And we wound up on the Aventine hill in the south, where the poet John Keats rests in the “English” cemetery under the epitaph “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”–“Evocative,” George had said, “but what does it mean?”–and from whose shady crest you can see the sun set over the Tiber behind the Janiculum and the distant dome of St. Peter’s.

By late evening, we were back in the Piazza della Rotunda after dining not far away on the sublime fettucine Alfredo at Alfredo alla Scroffa, which boasts of inventing the dish and deserves honor, whether the claim is true or not, for the elixir it serves. We sat at a busy café in the piazza where seasoned waiters dressed in black fronted with white aprons, scampered about exuding a charm fashioned to win the hearts of lonely ladies from the likes of mid-western American towns who have dreamed of Roman romance, and who get just enough of it this way, a staged dose of solicitous Italian male attention that they can take home with them in memories of imagined raptures, and can invoke with far-away-looks for inquisitive friends, and can thereafter enjoy sweetly and safely in their sleep. These are the guys who can do it.

“Ah, buono sera.  You like cappucino? Gelato?” said a waiter pleasantly. We ordered espresso and sumbucca. “Mille grazi.’”  With a smile and a crisp approving bow he clicked his heels and glided briskly away. We watched him go and followed the others as they darted back and forth, catching bits of their salutations and banter with customers. “Bella notte, signorina.” “Ah, veryy nice.” “Splennndeedo.”  It was all Roman charm. The convivial piazza. The summer night. Safe romance. Eternal Rome.

Then through the bustling waiters and crowded tables, I saw her again. The crone. Was it the same one? She was still in front of the Pantheon, now illuminated by lights aimed at it from around the square. She had hardly moved since morning. But the Pantheon was now closed. Why was she here at this hour? Maybe she did live in the streets. I pointed her out to George. “From central casting, I’d say,” he replied nonchalantly.

We lingered a while relishing the Roman night, then finished our drinks and went back to the hotel. Later, I lay in bed, listening to the voices outside wane. Unable to sleep, I went to the window and watched the last few café patrons drift away. The waiters started to stack their tables and chairs against the walls and to shutter the doors. The lights illuminating the Pantheon had gone dark, other lights around the piazza flicked out, and the piazza fell silent. But the scene remained surprisingly bright, the Pantheon standing in a soft luminescence. I leaned out the window and looked upwards. A radiant full moon hung in a starless sky. It bathed the dome of the Pantheon and washed over the piazza with a glow that picked out the contours of the cobblestones–how poignant that they should be a new evocation of the past–and threw distinct shadows down from the temple and from the fountain’s gargoyles, shadows that seemed to belong to such a night.

Suddenly, I saw a shadow move. It passed in the moonlight from the corner of the Pantheon to a narrow street running along the western side of the former temple toward the back. A trail of creatures low to the ground moved with it. It wasn’t a shadow. It was the crone. And the cats. Or so I concluded. This gets mysteriouser and mysteriouser, I had said to myself, like Alice in Wonderland.

Curiosity and the luminous night banished my timidity. Leaving George sleeping, I slipped on some clothes and stole out the door. Down two flights of stairs, I was outside in the quiet, deserted piazza. As if stalking a spy, I sneaked through the shadows against the buildings toward where I had seen the mysterious entourage. I couldn’t see them now, but I went forward, having no clear idea of why, or of what I expected to find.

When I reached the spot by the Pantheon where they had been, I peered down the narrow street. Not a trace. Irresistibly, I pressed on, driven by what I knew to be a silly fascination and a trace of slightly dangerous excitement. Twinges of nervousness pecked at my stomach as I left the open piazza behind for the uncertain trail I was following. Firming my will, I told myself that if I found nothing, I would continue on all around the Pantheon. Then I could at least go home with a story of a solitary moonlit walk in the deep of the night around the two-thousand-year-old Roman temple that is the most perfect building in the world. On through the darkness I went, careful of my steps, which involuntarily grew quicker as I plunged into the night.

As I neared the rear corner of the temple, my nerves tightened more. Moonlight falling on the ancient bricks of the temple’s back wall created a weird patch-work of jagged surfaces and shadows. But no sign of the crone and her cats. They must’ve gone off down one of the tangled medieval streets and alleys fanning out from here, I thought. No point trying to guess which. Suddenly sensing how alone I was in this nighttime  foreign place, I braced for the next stretch and headed swiftly down the street behind the Pantheon toward the far side, glancing here and there for my prey. No trace. When I reached the far corner, I relaxed a bit and entered a small adjacent piazza brightened by the moon to make a cursory check for the crone. No one. A tall statue in the center caught my eye. It depicted an elephant holding an obelisk on its back. I had seen it before and knew it to be by Bernini. In the moonlight it appeared even more whimsical than in daylight, not at all an emblem of wisdom, as its inscription stated. Amused by the sight, I forgot for a moment why I was there, thinking how mongrel Rome keeps surprising and amusing you. Then I started back toward the hotel.

Hurrying along the street to the east of the Pantheon toward the Piazza della Rotunda, I was now eager to complete the adventure, and no longer concerned about why I had begun it. As I approached the piazza, the bright moonlight reflecting on the cobblestones and building facades in the wide open space emboldened me again. I slowed my pace. The night had once more become too inviting for me to leave just yet. Then it occurred to me that inside the Pantheon on a night like this, with a full moon shining down through the oculus, must look kind of magical. I had to see it, if I could. Maybe I could peek inside between the massive front doors.

Soon I was standing at the base of the majestic columns at the front. I stepped into the dark portico and made my way to the bronze doors rising twenty feet from the ground. There I pressed my face to the narrow open space where they met.

I could barely see through. A column of moonlight poured down through the wide opening in the dome. My eyes followed it to the floor, where it lit a circle in the middle like a theatrical spotlight. What I saw there so startled me that I bumped my head against the doors. In the large oval spotlight stood–the crone!  Less crooked than before, she was swaying back and forth and waving her arms and tossing morsels in the air that momentarily caught the light as they fell. Surrounding her on the floor to the edge of the spotlight and into the darkness were–cats. Dozens. Scores of them. They jumped to catch what she tossed. They rolled. They ran. They tumbled. They stood on their hind legs. They batted the air with their paws. They made the floor seem alive. They almost seemed to be dancing with the crone. But they made no sound.

I stared. How did they get in? A hidden passage? An underground conduit from a nearby ruin? That would be like Rome. But is this really happening? I asked myself.

I watched for five, ten, fifteen minutes. The crone and the cats. The cats frolicking, all as silent as the night, a mysterious performance in a heavenly light that had shined on this stage every night of the full moon for close to two millenia. Tourists see the sunlight come through. But who sees the moonlight?

Maybe Hadrian knew, I thought. The oculus lets in the moonlight as well as the sun. Here was the perfect Roman building, for sure. The perfect temple for worshiping all the gods of heaven. The perfect stage for moonlit rituals. The perfect setting to celebrate the mysteries and magic of the night. The perfect place for congregations of the mongrel cats of Rome. Hadrian must have known.

Finally, a bit dizzied I eased away from the door. Somehow, I found my way across the piazza to the hotel and up the stairs and into the room and under the sheets, and there I dissolved into sleep.

And then I dreamed, for the first of unnumbered times, of what George and everyone else to whom I told the story dismissed as only a dream. Perhaps it was a dream. But I could never believe that. Because that night forever changed Rome for me, becoming my very image of the Eternal City’s wondrous history and eclectic hospitality. And it always leaves me smiling, whenever, asleep or awake, I see again that faceless crone and her Roman cats silently dancing in the Pantheon under Hadrian’s moon.

TANGO

My bottle of cheap vino tinto cast a wispy, ragged shadow over graffiti scratched into my tiny wooden table at the Cafe Dorengo deep within the old San Telmo section of Buenos Aires. Shelves of empty, dust-covered wine bottles lined the neglected walls. Unwashed windows wore the grit of time, some, like the etched-glass panes of the swinging entrance doors, pieced together with tape. Ceiling fans creaked overhead. Yellowed light fixtures sent a sepia tint into the haze of cigarette smoke and down upon the scarred tables and the scuffed black-and-white floor tiles. Here and there, clusters of patrons were drinking and talking. Lovers huddled in corners sharing whispers and hiding kisses. A smattering of loners like me were whiling away hours by themselves. And through the cloudy air pulsed the thin, grainy sounds of old recordings playing the aching, angry, sensual songs of the tango.

A young couple got up from their table and sidled through the chairs to an open space at the center of the room. They struck a sultry pose and stepped into the dance. Hands linked. Feet crossed. Legs entwined. Thighs rubbed. They twirled apart and spun back together. Again and again. Again and again. Then they slowed and, weaving sensuually around each other back to front, front to back, they oozed off the dance floor, wended to their table, and looped balletically into their chairs. Scattered applause crackled. And a ragged voice beside me said, “Tango ess muueee peleegroooso.”

I turned to see the craggy features of an old man facing me from the next table.

“Pardone?” I stammered.

“Ah,” he nodded, sensing an American, and leaned closer. “Tango eees varrryy danngerrrusss.”

I squinted to see him clearly. He could have been sixty years old or a hundred-and-sixty. His face carried more than lines of age. It bore shadows of a buried life and  ancient sorrows. My curiosity teased, I asked what he meant.

“Tango ees no onlee danz,” he rasped, his voice deep with years and smoking. “Eet ees ‘sad song made into danz.’ But eet ees more. Tango ees ‘La danza de amor e muerte,’ says poet, ‘The danz of love and death.’ Ees true. Tango can deestroyy you.”  He puffed on a stumpy cigarette, and gulped from the glass of wine he hunched over in front of him. He held me with his arresting, rheumy, plaintive eyes. This was a man with a story. A story he wanted to tell. And I decided to let him tell it.

 

“Eet beegeen heer,” he confided, gathering his wine and cigarettes and dragging his chair over to my table. “Een thees café.”  He went on insistently in his thick accent, but with a flair and fluency that quickly captured me and lost to my ear almost all traces of  foreignness.

“Those were hard times in Buenos Aires,” he explained. “Little work. Much trouble. San Telmo and La Boca had many riots. We became socialists to change everything. And we went to cafes to drink and to forget, and to dream and to dance.

“They met here one of those nights. Musicians played, over there in that corner,” and he gestured with his glass. “A bandoneon–you call it accordion–a violin, a guitar, a singer. Always tango. Not like the fancy dance halls later or shows today. In those days it was our music. Our dance. Our life. Sadness and anger, love and hate, dreams and death.

“She came in with a man, and sat facing this way. Her black hair gleamed in the candle light as it fell to the shoulders of her shiny black dress. Her face in that light had the beauty of the angels. Skin of gold. High round cheeks. Lips full and red, opening to a wide smile. Large, dark, enticing, and dangerous eyes.  Madrilena was her name. But Eduardo didn’t know that then

“Eduardo sat here alone, smoking, drinking, listening to tango. He saw her come in and watched her hair glisten, her face glow, her lips part to speak and smile and sip from her glass and purse around cigarettes.  Suddenly shock and anger came over her. He heard her voice rise, and he saw her jump up, grab her glass, and throw wine on the man  shouting, “Vermin! Shit! Get out!! Get Out!!”  The man tried to quiet her, but she ran to the bar and bent over it, covering her face with her hands. The man followed. He spoke and touched her on the shoulder from behind. She spun around screaming “Never!! Bastard!!” and with an open hand slapped the side of his face and clawed bloody streaks down his cheek with her nails. He staggered back and raised a fist to crush her. But he held it. She stood strong, defiant. The man growled a curse and stalked out of the café.

“It all happened so fast that Eduardo could only stare. Then, while she remained standing at the bar, something told him to go to her. And that was how they met.

“Madrilena was still hot with rage, but she agreed to sit and have a drink with Eduardo. She said the man had betrayed her love, and with her own best friend. She wanted him to die. They drank and smoked and talked of hate and love, heartache and pain. And listened to the music of their mood. They had many feelings to share. Many hurts and many yearnings. When it was very late, Eduardo asked Madrilena to dance with him.  She didn’t answer.  Then she slid her hand slowly across the table. He lifted her fingers with his. They both rose, drew together, and cautiously stepped into the music.

“They moved around the little floor carefully at first. A little awkward. But  gradually the tango freed them. Their feet found a pattern, their bodies felt the rhythm, their eyes met, then flew apart in a whirl and returned to meet again. Eventually the tables and chairs and voices and people around them faded away into the smoky haze, leaving Madrilena and Eduardo dancing alone to the music of the bandoneon, the violin, and the guitar, and to the tango singer sobbing of cruel despairs, broken hearts, and tattered dreams.

Today there’s no difference / between straight or treacherous / ignorant, wise, thieving generous…. / So, sell the soul / raffle the heart.

And

O, my sorrowful night…. / I’m drowning in my sorrows / To try to forget your love.

And

Feel the blood rise to your face / with every beat, / while an arm winds like a snake / around a waist / about to break. / This is how to dance the tango!…. /Sad severe tango… / Dance of love and death.

“Lost in the music, stung by the songs, they danced until the last note ended. Then without word or glance, Madrilena said she had to go and swiftly walked away. Eduardo called out to her. She pushed through the swinging glass doors to the street. But he thought he heard her say over her shoulder, “Mañana en la noche.” Tomorrow night. He wanted to go after her, but he didn’t. He knew it would be no use.

“Eduardo waited the next night at the same table, uncertain that she would come. But she did. The same black, gleaming hair. The same shiny black dress. The same glowing face. The same dark, enticing, dangerous eyes. She paused briefly inside the door. He went to her. The first night repeated itself. Talking, drinking, smoking. And tango. But this time the talk was shorter, the wine sweeter, the smoke thicker.  And the tango more sure and more intense. Eduardo led with a firmer hand. Madrilena did her turns and bends, ochos and boleros with touches of flair. They were beginning to anticipate each others moves, feeling muscles tense, sensing moments for feet to cross, tap, kick, and spin as they danced figures of their own to the edgy, pulsing music, while their eyes locked together more and more often, their steps quickened, and their holds tightened as if pouring fuel on a fire in their hearts. The café vanished for them as before, leaving them alone with the urgent music, and the sad songs that cut through the smoky air like poems of grief from tormented souls.

“Then it was over. She left. And again ‘mañana en la noche’ echoed in Eduardo’s ears. She came back the next night. And it all happened again. The next night, too. But now their talk was brief. The wine went down fast. Half-smoked cigarettes burned in the tray. Eduardo and Madrilena were here to tango.

“Their earlier hesitations had disappeared. They gripped each other with strong hands, their eyes intent, their feet knowing what to do. Others in the café sat back to watch. And what they saw was not just dance. It was passion. Not love. A passion made of sadness and pain and anger and lust. A passion the tango knows well.

“And that night, after swirling and kicking and dipping and clenching with a careless precision and a rising heat, the last steps of a spinning, entangling embrace brought Madrilena’s and Eduardo’s faces together in a breathless kiss. They held it and each other for seconds, like a tableau. Then they eased apart, and, the music still playing, they passed through the swinging doors to the street together, arm in arm.

“What happened next, and whenever Eduardo and Madrilena were alone, only they could know. People told many stories about them. But nothing is as true as what I tell you now.

“In Madrilena’s cramped room on a narrow street of San Telmo, the passions of their tango became a tango of passionate lust. And like their tango, there was nothing tender in their lust. They kissed with fire and threw themselves on each other, wrestling, squeezing, heaving. It was fierce, ferocious. And ecstatic  They said nothing, but for the sounds of excitement that sprang from their throats. Their language had become passion itself, beyond words. The passion of the tango, and of their flaming desires. When the night ended, they were no longer themselves.

“From then on, Eduardo and Madrilena came not just to the Café Dorengo. They went to tango bars all over Buenos Aires. The cafes of San Telmo, the dives of La Boca, the dance halls of Central where the tango was winning the fashionable set. They danced to small groups of players like here, and to whole tango orchestras, to every song and every singer, old men with ravaged memories, young men with anguished hearts. She always wore a shiny black dress, sleek, slit up the side; he wore black, too, pinstriped pants and an open shirt for the cafes, a suit, sometimes a hat, for the dance halls. They had little money. But what money they had went to the tango.

“Soon they were known everywhere. Not only because they danced often. But because their tango was becoming the most brilliant, and the most daring. Their steps raced, their thighs twined, their heels flashed. Madrilena’s twists and kicks flared and her  high leaps soared into Eduardo’s steely catches. His arms lifted her like a feather and tossed her like a leaf, dipped her like a flower and gripped her like a vice. Other dancers started drawing aside when Madrilena and Eduardo took the floor. There they watched and murmured that this tango was the pure ‘dance of love and death.’

“When Madrilena and Eduardo were by themselves, their lust, like their tango, possessed them with a mounting fury. Hungrily, their bodies sought out every sensation. The stronger the better. And the stronger the sensations became, the stronger they had yet to become. Old pleasures went numb. Old feelings dulled. New sensations demanded brighter flames, hotter fire. Then the violence beneath the surface of their tango and of their desires began breaking through.

“You could see this happening in the bars and dance halls. Every week Madrilena and Eduardo’s movements became more exaggerated,  the kicks higher, the spins faster, the leaps farther, the bumps harder, the dips deeper. Cries of shock and sighs of admiration burst from the crowds gathered around them as they danced with an animal ferocity and terrifying grace that came closer and closer to catastrophe. It was as though they were tempting each other to riskier thrills, sharper pains, greater dangers, a contest of appetites and endurance, a mating dance in the wild that grows more exciting as it grows more violent.

“One night, after the tango had left them more drunk than ever with passion, they made a shambles of Madrilena’s room, rolling and crashing about, each clutching at the other’s body, pulling hair, scratching flesh, prodding themselves to feel more and more and more, upending chairs, crushing tables, shattering dishes, tearing the bed sheets, and ripping the pillows spewing feathers into the air to flutter down over everything, sticking to their soaking naked bodies that lay still at last, panting in a quivering heap on the floor.  They had found new heights, or depths, to their savage delights. New freedom. New feelings. New exhilaration. The violence thrilled them. Their passion was sheer erotic obsession now. Its taste a bitter-sweet elixir they had to drink. They had never felt so alive. Or so close to death.

“The ravenous hunger was consuming them again when they next met late one night at La Corrientas, in Central. The summer’s heat hung in the air. The hall was filled with dancers and lovers and Porteños out to see tango in a safe place. The punching beat of four bandoneons surged through the large room, while four violins traded skittering melodies with the bandoneons and with a throbbing piano, all pumping tango into the blood. One after another, singers young and old, cried their aching songs of anger and sorrow.

“Madrilena and Eduardo began circling slowly around each other, like jungle cats, their fiery, menacing eyes piercing into each other. Those who had seen them before, and many had, could tell they were entering a world of their own, where no one else could go, or would dare. Gradually they moved into their tango as if in a slow-motion film, restraint adding tension and energy to their movements. Their entire first dance went like that, a pantomime of tango in slow motion. But you could feel the fire in it. Like the foreplay of sex, but not loving, not tender. Never that for them. White hot. Close to explosion.

“With every dance their fire burned hotter and hotter, rising toward the surface like an awakening volcano, breaking out in viciously flashing kicks, frightening leaps, bruising embraces. Other dancers backed farther and farther away, as if to keep from getting singed.  Step by step, spark by spark, Eduardo and Madrilena conquered the floor until it was theirs alone. The musicians played only for them, faster and faster the pace, louder and harsher the sound. The bandoneons’ rhythms stabbed, the violins’ chorus cried, the piano’s bass shook, and melodies raced and galloped and tumbled in a frenzied crescendo of heart-pounding, soul-wrenching tango. Urging the music on, Eduardo and Madrilena swirled and twisted and kicked and skipped and leaped and slid and dipped and clinched. They seemed unable to stop. Every pause only fueled their fire, launching ever more extreme and perilous movements. No one had seen anything quite like it. Even from Eduardo and Madrilena.

“Then the volcano erupted. With the tango at a pitch no bandoneonist could sustain, no violinist could continue, no pianist could endure, and no dancer could long survive, Madrilena unwound herself from a long spin, coiled again, and threw herself through the air at Eduardo as if hurled by the wind. Her split skirt pulled high, she curled one leg beneath her and pointed the other out straight, her fish-net stockings glistening from her hip to her spikey heel. Bracing for the catch, Eduardo spread and anchored his feet, bent his knees, and reached out his arms. Flames arced from her eyes to his as she flew. The instant he grasped her he knew. He saw her teeth cut through her lip and felt a blinding pain where her heel tore through his trousers and slashed into his flesh. At almost the same instant, Madrilena’s hand clamped around the back of his neck and pulled their mouths together in a hard, biting kiss, while Eduardo wrapped an arm tightly around her waist, and crushed Madrilena to him with a powerful sudden force that drove a cry from her throat and made her legs go limp. Her fingernails etched deep red lines down his cheek as the two bodies crumpled to the floor. Eduardo groaned. Blood oozed from his face and spread from the tear between his legs. Madrilena moaned but did not move. The crowd gasped. The music stuttered, and stopped.”

 

The old man’s voice trailed off.  He downed the last of his wine. I waited. He dragged on a cigarette and let the smoke drift from his nose and mouth. He tapped the ashes onto a pile spilling over in the ashtray.

Finally, I asked haltingly, “What…What happened to them?”

Releasing another chest-full of smoke, he sighed,  “Madrilena. She could not walk again.”

“And Eduardo?”

The old man took another deep pull on his cigarette. Exhaling heavily, he wheezed, “Eduardo could never….” He coughed gruffly, phlegm thick in his throat. Then, peering past me as though seeing someone in the distance, he smothered his cigarette butt in the ashes, flicked the discarded pack toward me, and shoved his chair from the table, scraping the tiles. Standing up stiffly, he muttered, “Eet ees feeneesh. Adios.” And as if achingly, he shuffled away.

I sat bewildered. Who was that? A storyteller? An old dreamer bewitched by the tango? This is a good place for stories, I had to admit.  Spend enough time here, and anyone might start to tell ‘em. I drained my wine and turned around to watch the old man leave. I could see him near the entrance laying a shawl around the shoulders of an old woman in a chair. She must’ve just come in, or maybe she’d signaled to him to go out with her. He patted her back. She lifted a frail hand. He placed his fingers under hers. And, slowly circling her, he gracefully swung her chair around on its wheels. And gently he pushed her out through the glass doors.

My mouth fell open. What the…? Was it possible? He…?  She…?  I was still gaping at the flapping door panes held in place by their fraying strips of tape when a skirt brushed my arm. The young dancers from earlier swept past into the center. My gaze involuntarily followed them. He gripped her tight, they cocked their heads, and they flowed into a tango that seemed to more intense and sensual than before. The sobbing baritone on a tinny recording sang,

Feel the blood rise to your face

With every beat;

While an arm winds like a snake

Around a waist

about to break.

This is how to dance the tango!…

Dance of love and death.

Yielding to an obscure yearning, I ordered another vino tinto. Idly fingering the rumpled cigarette pack, I felt one left inside. I slipped it out, put it to my lips, lit it, and inhaled deeply. Then, propping my elbows on the table and resting my chin on my open palms, I let the smoke float mistily from my lungs. And I began searching the room through the haze for a pair of dark, enticing, dangerous eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All tango lyrics and the lines from the poem “Tango” by Ricardo Guiraldes come from Simon Collier, et al., Tango: The Dance, The Song, The Story (London: 1995).