I woke this morning with yesterday’s toothache still painfully nudging me to do something. Still blinded by the morning light I reached for my cellphone and called the oral surgeon my dentist recommended several weeks ago. His secretary offered an appointment for Thursday evening. I don’t know why I didn’t tell her that an earlier appointment would be better. It didn’t seem natural to volunteer for torture before breakfast. Perhaps things would be different after coffee.
A writer friend of mine is visiting at the moment to do some research on a book and so I decided to accompany him part-way to the National Archives. I brought the dog. I left my friend heading in the direction of the depository while the dog added another layer to the rich tapestry of the city among some late-flowering begonias. I turned for home, scanning the street for a trash-can and reflecting on the strength of the canine lobby in American democracy. Half way home my thoughts of pitbulls and poodles in smoke-filled rooms discussing pork-bellies was interrupted by the aroma of fresh coffee leaking from my neighborhood Starbucks. I find Starbucks coffee bitter and unpleasant but I like the luxury of a daily ritual I don’t have to believe in. It makes me feel unique. If nothing else – going to Starbucks affords the illusion that you are doing something when you are doing nothing. I parked the pooch and went inside.
Hey kid – if its September 2007 in Washington D.C. what time is it in Paris?
I turned from prospecting the board for something palatable to determine the author of such an unusual and as yet unanswered question. It was Humphrey Bogart and he was talking to me. As many of you know, I last met him in a noodle shop in Singapore and, though it had never made much sense to me, the casual nature of our departure on that occasion seemed to confirm that we would meet again. I smiled. It was good to see him once more.
So what ya been doing kid?
My wisdom tooth was pulsing in my mouth and laying claim to a sphere of influence that included much of the side of my face. I lifted my hand to my jaw in a vain attempt to encourage cranial diplomacy and detente but to no avail. Bogart didn’t react – instead he just seemed to stare through me as if I was a figment of his imagination.
You know Renault right?
I said I did. Captain Louis Renault was the local head of the Vichy police in Casablanca.
You know that after Strasser fell on that gun things got a little more exciting for Louis – it was a little more difficult for him to get a decent table in a restaurant if you know what I mean. It didn’t seem fair to me since I pulled the trigger and all. Then he got clipped in the leg while running from some goons in Rabat. He was laid up for a while and I offered to get him a flight out of Malta. He wasn’t having any of it. And even when the craziness was winding down, instead of doing what any sensible man would do and have it out, he hung onto that shrapnel like it was an old sweetheart. Sometimes he called it Ilsa. Sometimes he thought he was a wise-guy.
Bogart turned towards the Rastafarian barista and asked for a tall café americano.
. . .and whatever this guy’s having . .
I ordered a small regular coffee, refusing to translate it into tall, venti or whatever terms they were using now that small is considered vulgar. I glanced out the window to ensure that my dog was still there.
Sort of . . . .what happened to Louis?
You know how it was – when the war was over it turned out that the winning side was much more popular than anyone thought. Louis like everyone else wanted a new life and jumped ship to Buenos Aires with some old friends. That was the last I ever saw of him. That’s the way it goes, one in, one out. He took Ilsa with him.
He stopped talking then and looked at me as if I existed. My paper coffee cup was roasting my hand.
You take care kid.
I never remember seeing a bell on a Starbucks café door, but this one had a bell, a small brass one that jangled as he walked out and melded into the passers-by. I went to add too much sugar to my coffee. The bell jangled for me too.