Where he would die was a life-long obsession for Arthur Sand. He was at this point, half-way through that length of time that he knew, or at least had once read in an orphaned copy of the Economist at the airport in Atlanta, was typical for a Caucasian male in a developed country. He kept a record of the possibilities, and, on occasions of unbearable tedium such as standing in-line waiting for a flight to board, he would unfurl his map of ideal places to die and spread it before his mind’s eye. With relish, he would smoothen the imaginary creases, taking a moment to briefly review the folds for any signs of wear.
Typically, he would start his purview in the regimental chapel. Brass plates and torn flags. “Robert McKinley, born, Galway, Ireland, 12th Regiment, Irish Fusiliers, died Bengal. David MacCauley, born, Edinburgh, Irish Guard, died Natal, South Africa.” During the weekend mornings, before the artisans gathered in the market outside, he would stand alone in the three-naved chapel. The floor was covered with remnants of medieval gravestones, names slowly worn away by visitors. “Connor de Burgh, 1714, late sheriff of this citiye, a widow’s son.” How beautifully still, summer light flowing through the large stained-glass rose-window. So many soldiers lying in such calm silence. It seemed unlikely. The stone knight lay in full-repose, clutching his petrified sword. What did these dead men feel here in the loamy deep rich moist soils of home? Did they replay memories of India? Visions of magnificent Afghan warlords seen for the first time through the sights of their muskets? Did a pair of green eyes beneath a veil in Peshwar now and forever haunt their thoughts? How could they bear it then, to be buried here within earshot of all they knew, remembering all that they had found?
Calling groups 2 and 3.
He ran his finger across the dry paper, delighting in the thoughts of geography and adventure that trailed his gaze, like seagulls following a trawler at sea. Fiji. Self-conscious hesitation. Lapping, peaceful blue turquoise waters. He was not himself, but someone transmuted and free. He was nothing, owning nothing, receiving no communications and was clothed as befit the purpose of the day rather than for any care for typical customs or modesty. He was human with them, and after all these years, he was now sure that they too were so with him. They sat surrounding. His aged and failing mind would play with the words of his mother tongue, long since resigned to use merely as a type of music. E-l-a-b-o-r-a-t-e. P-o-l-y-d-a-c-t-y-l. He would laugh at puns that only he could understand, some more humorous than others. Now they laughed too. Men emerging from the sea between his eyelids. A-m-p-h-i-b-i-a-n. The taste of fresh sea-urchin soaked in Vanderford’s orange juice. V-a-i-n-g-l-o-r-i-o-u-s. Perhaps he had helped these people in some way during his life. Perhaps they had come to love him. Perhaps, on this day, they would flood the small harbor with dugouts, bellow into a great conch-shell and scatter on the sea the ashes of one who had known the full bargain of their friendship and family. The sea!? No, not the sea – how irreversible! No, in the palm-grove on the bluff, where one can look out to sea and watch the world from afar. Perhaps catch a ship forever on the horizon. And yet, amid more than his fair share of beauty, he was so far from home. He felt disloyal to the graves of those from whom he had begot.
He was certain that one location was surely so awful, the manner of the passing there so ignoble that it could not be endured. The horror of it in fact had given birth to his map. Manhattan. In his life, he had lived there for a while and indeed quite liked it, with mixed feelings, as with anything. It was one of the few places in the United States where he felt he did not have to apologize for thinking. And yet, perhaps born out of this peculiarity, it seemed now to his older mind a town full of conceit, smugness, and the typical adolescent pretensions and affectations of those who do not yet realize they are about to die. It happens in a kitchen in an atomistic apartment with a large and intentionally de-personalizing number. 5603. “Oh, the man in 5603 died,” she would say returning to bed on a Saturday morning, firm-breasted and young, reading the obituary. The television would almost immediately quench their memories of him with a warning on the importance of being regular. Days before, he had been lying on the floor, unable to move, listening to them fuck while he waited. “J G Wentworth. Mattress-discounters. Cialis. This is unlike any computer we’ve ever made before. In a sense it’s not a computer at all. It’s you. Get the channels you want, when you want them. Have you been injured in a workplace accident?” He had never felt sufficiently at home in that apartment to want to change the kitchen-cabinets. And now those cabinets were the only witnesses to his departure. Too much fucking beige.
Please turn off all electrical devices at this time.
Would America ever do? Perhaps the Rockies, but he had never been. He had seen photographs and films and the vast expanses of pristine untouched nature seemed sufficiently beautiful to warrant his last breath. Upwards, peaks, clean, majestic, undisciplined, devoid of advertising. Perhaps there was a sunlit glade, the seasons passing quietly by. The nights still and filled with constellations, tales of Araby? Perhaps a camper would light a fire nearby and read aloud from Thoreau or Whitman. That would be a pleasant evening. Maybe? America, – such a strange land. Imagine being tied to its disappointments forever. No doubt they would find some ingenious double-talking way to screw it all up. I couldn’t bear to have to watch them beggar themselves with progress and be unable to leave. A drill-bit mangling through my bones, some plaid-bellied foreman bending down to toss my skull aside. Farting. And yet perhaps they wouldn’t, or perhaps the mountains would endure nonetheless as they had always done.
“Please fasten your seatbelt sir.”
“Oh I’m sorry.”
The plane taxied to the runway. Across the aisle there was a woman from India. She had a child with large brown eyes. She was beautiful.
The isolated mountains of Provence. Manon de Sources. Home of the Cathar heretics, the lethal pot-shot taking camaraderie of the Croix de Lorraine. Sunlight pouring through the open door of the farmhouse imperceptibly nestled among the cypress trees along a golden ridge.
The woman’s husband sat beside her. He was tall and disinterested, with that stern look that stupid people wear when they are trying to appear commanding.
Shelves lined with books and old friends. A wrought iron-bed. Fresh tomatoes left by the door by a friend. Tuesday. Ever the optimist. The birds outside in summer. He knew there was a half a bottle of rosé left in the fridge. Last week a letter, a paper letter.
The mother’s face was sweet and gentle. He thought what a waste for a woman like that to spend a lifetime with a man like him.
At this point this felt best. His spirit gently flowing from him, through the memories of laughing dinners on the terrace and out into a countryside devoid of modernity and soaked in history. He would feel the cloth sheets, old paper, warm stone, friendly timber, transcendent blue-green glass.
What a beautiful child.
The plane began to increase in speed. He secretly loved how the acceleration forced him back into the chair and then that ecstasy at takeoff. The lift beneath the wings. The moisture flickering violently on the window as if nature herself was shocked by such obscene acceleration. Suspended now, in the air, between points, beyond choice or control. He was smiling. His mind was silent. He closed his eyes.
She smelled of jasmine and something else.
“Can I stay?”
He leaned against the jam of the door. Tweed against timber. Behind him darkness. Despite all my thoughts, now was the moment of choosing. My heart was beating loudly in my chest. I looked back at the room, the artifacts of my domesticity. In that second, somebody else in me said yes. The barrel of the gun over his shoulder, kissed the doorway as he slipped inside. The door closed and locked.
We sat in the darkness, by the fire. His face wrapped in shadow. Periodically the embers, finding some fresh unconsumed part of the log, would momentarily cast a greater light that tried in vain to penetrate the shroud. I searched how to make conversation without questions. The silence grew uncomfortable. I reached to the table for the knife, and some bread.
The wind was picking up outside. I searched the trees, darker shades of black set against the navy sky, for unfamiliar patterns. I knew that he had not found my door by accident, that he had been brought here by desperation and opportunity, that there would be others. The walls blinkered my view. I thought to get to a vantage point, from the windows upstairs, but I could not leave him.
He ate the bread without butter. Dirt trapped under his fingernails.
“Are you healthy?”
My grandfather’s clock marked the hour, unconscious of the need for silence. Staring into the fire, each avoiding the gaze of the other. Time passing. He sat hunched over in the darkness.
I remember kneeling beside my mother in the church as a boy, sitting vigil at midnight mass as Christ waited in the garden for them to take him. So unusual, to a boy, seeing all those villagers there, kneeling in the darkness. A single candle, a black cloth draping the cross. Even the priest is silent. All I can hear is breathing, I cannot tell whether it is mine or that of others around me. Two-hundred of us. My mother’s fingers pass quietly across each rosary bead. Her lips moving slightly as she prays in her mind. She seems to begin each prayer with my inhalation. I could feel him among us. Fingers through beads. Waiting through time. I must be slipping in and out of consciousness, perhaps I am sleeping and awakening.
I became aware again of where I was. I got up quietly and went to the kitchen to fill the teapot. I realized too late that there was now nothing between him and the stairs. The familiar sound of water filling a teapot. I returned. He had not moved. The flames reoriented as I nestled the vessel among the embers. I could see a white bandage peer from beneath his over-sized coat.
“Let me see that.”
It began to rain outside. I untied his rags.
“It was just some barbed wire on the hills.”
In that moment I knew the path he had taken to my door. I knew the way he had come, why and who he was.
“Were you followed?”
“I don’t think so.”
There was no moon outside. The water in the teapot began to boil. I reached for the old tea-caddy and stirred in two spoons and lifted the pot off the fire.
“It’s fresh, but I should scald it.”
I poured the boiling tea over his hand. The blood and dirt mixed with it and poured among the ashes. He bit into his bearded lower lip and said nothing. I reached into the closet for old rags lost among knitting needles and fairytale books. One of the needles fell to the floor. He stared at me briefly and then looked into the fire as I wrapped his hand in a fresh rag. He tilted his head wistfully as if studying how the flames consumed the remaining wood. Surrendering. I tied the knot. He looked at me, thanked me, and motioned to get up and leave.
It didn’t rain for three months in the summer of nineteen eighty four.
“This is how the Romans built drains,” he said.
His hands were leathery and he smelled like history. I smelled it again in the Cathedral at Rouen. They too were our people. He handled a large rectangular cuboid shaped stone. An igneous rock, with crystals glistening in the sunlight. His biceps flexed as he held it. Sinews. It made a sound as it hit the side wall of the long drain that stretched across the landscape like a scar. Schtumpf! The Romans never reached here. Then we came.
“One like that on either side, and then a flagstone across the top. Before the cement pipes, that’s how they did it. And it’s still useful when you come to a bend, a rock that can’t be destroyed or a whitethorn tree.”
You can’t cut a whitethorn tree. They are protected by legend, the love of the local people. Hunched heads over warm jars of hot sweet tea whispered stories about those that had cut them. It was how the people of the Goddess Dana got home at night. That’s what they used to say. The light bark caught the moonlight.
He moved forward two or three feet and repeated the process. Schtumpf! Gradually, under the golden sunlight, a secret underground waterway snaked through the heather.
“Layer pebbles, then small rocks and then bigger rocks and then topsoil. Then seed it and where once there was wilderness, you’ll have rich blue grass. Then milk. Then beef.
There was not a single cloud in the sky. A curlew flew over head. He bent back to look up at the small shadow cross in blue.
“She’s free. I’ve never seen a pair. I suppose there has to be another.”
Rain. Several cars were lined up at the traffic light. I sat in the passenger seat and stared vacantly at the glowing hue of their brake-lights. I would need a new grey pants for my uniform. School was starting again in a week. The last two years. Time to get serious. A large concrete block of apartments, some 13 stories tall. Entire families lived in each of those, supposedly. Why? A Citroen pulled-in to the side of road to get out of the way of traffic.
“They had great engineering, ahead of their time, but it meant no one could fix them.”
Airport. Just like Columbus. Ferdie and Isob. I was surprised that the yellow taxi-cabs looked just like the ones in the movies.
“What number on Madison?”
“1376. Thank you.”
Everything smells different. I might be inside a television. That strange feeling of knowing something you don’t, and how to talk to people you’ve never met before. You couldn’t get lost here if you tried. Everything is sign-posted. Highway. Faucet. Garbage.
“And you have a beautiful view of the city from here.”
The tea was weak. Have I ever been this high?
When the wind blows through blue grass it turns silver in the moonlight.
Alexander Lutchek refused to be wet. This resolution passed through his mind as he stood outside the “Hot Yoga” studio on Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC. To those passing by, including the local artist, Thomas Brown (who would later that evening paint the most famous work of his life, Connecticut Clown), Lutchek presented a most incongruous figure. Six feet tall, decked in a bright green jacket and bearing several large and brightly wrapped Christmas presents, Lutchek was, despite his refusal, drenched to the skin. Until that moment Lutchek had been having one of his better days. The majority of the gifts that he had purchased for loved ones, near and far, were perfectly suited for their intended recipients. This made him happier. So much happier in fact that the co-occurrence of these events seemed numinous to him. Fundamentally, he felt, his very fate had changed. He had spent much of the day imagining these gifts being opened on a chilly Christmas morning, beneath a perfectly appointed and illuminated tree. Even though he would not be there, he foresaw how the gifts themselves would eagerly escape their wrapping, inhale the pine and roast-turkey scented air of their new home in a distant land. Mother. This joy he felt in being outside of his own preoccupations, the interminable imprisonment of his own mind, led perfectly to a mood that guaranteed the spiritual success of his evening yoga class. Like the dawn breaking across a large expanse of flat countryside, this feeling of oneness with the world, this happy conclusion that all-in-all, most was best throughout the commonwealth, began to call forth thoughts of New Year’s resolutions and various enterprises for self-improvement. “It’s a matter of style, it’s how you carry yourself,” he thought as he reached for the door. Everything would fall into place. And then, as he opened the front door of the studio, one of DC’s blond-haired, white-pearled, BMW-driving K Street lobbyists, summarily splashed the contents of the city’s largest pothole directly, completely, and exclusively on the person of Mr. Lutchek. As the smell of discarded cigarette butts, strip-club detergent and the rubber-residue of a thousand tyres journeyed up his nose, the elegant calligraphy of the notes he attached to each of his deftly wrapped presents, began to dissolve into illegible, blackrose murky inkblots. It was precisely this scene that Brown would hang in the nearby National Portrait Gallery the following summer. Though one of the gallery’s most regular visitors, Lutchek would never see this painting.
The deep red hue of the traffic light drove Alice Foley into the past. Ringless fingers tightened on the steering wheel. At the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and S Street NW she lay under the Christmas tree as a child. Staring into the multicolored lights, she enjoyed how each one in turn had the capacity to change her mood. The pink; all things sweet, an August pencil case. The green; mercurial and otherworldly, a Victorian bodice. The blue; cold and industrial, things that had to be done. The red; the warmth of her father’s face. She missed him then and missed him still. No man since had such a light. No man since had ever been able, even in the most intimate of ecstasies, to lessen her grip on that want. She saw her small hands on his face. Now those hands were long, the flesh looser again this year. She lost awareness of herself and where she actually was when she imagined hearing that key in the door, the inhalation of his lifting, the evening stubble on his face, the solidity of his embrace, the guarantee that he would always be there. She knew that she ought to be grateful to have friends that would invite her to their celebrations this year, as they had so many before. She saw herself, navigating around strangers as she filled her plate from the credenza. An insufficient man would again carve the turkey this year. She was never stuck for words. It was her profession. She would drink no more than two glasses of wine. How had it come to this? Her foot pressed on the accelerator, even before the light had turned. She saw the yoga-studio and the door opening. She accelerated rapidly towards the pothole. Her feelings likewise dashed faster than her ability to analyze or stop them. She found a forbidden peace in letting go. As the author, only I can tell you what she never will. Since her father’s death in the Vietnam War, she had, as so many of us do, sublimated and redirected her feelings into a determined work-ethic. This had served her well, materially, but as we can see from the above, there were obvious wounds left untended. She associated the yoga studio with a self-indulgence she claims to have never afforded herself. She had of course never been inside a yoga-studio. No. That’s not true. She had once, briefly, to convert a gift voucher she had been given into cash. In any case she considered such things affected, impractical “balderdash.” (Her father had never actually used that word). Beneath her indictment, lay a reluctance to turn inward to the things that sat waiting for her there, and beneath that reluctance a knowledge that she would remain forever staring at a stoplight until she did.
It was not gallantry that inspired Gabriel Guttman to let the blond-haired woman in the BMW into the lane before him. He loved BMW. As he watched the curved hips of the vehicle present themselves before him, he thought of how perfectly each component within performed its function. He relished thinking how the pistons moved cleanly in each cylinder, the timed ignition of the controlled explosion in each chamber. It was the precision, the order of it all, that drove his lust. It represented a predictability in the affairs of man, a deliverance from arbitrariness and compounded misfortune, that he reluctantly felt could only exist in the the north. That is why he left. That is why, for now, he filled potholes for the City. He reached into a small box beside him for one of the cookie rings that his son had made for him. It was an incredibly good cookie, crumbly but moist. He looked at it in his hand, disbelieving. He placed the remainder in his mouth. My son. There was a card at the bottom of the now empty box on which was written in precociously elegant hand; “Por Papa, Todo mi amor.” He gasped to stop himself from reacting in a way that would embarrass him. When he thought of Christmas he was filled with trepidation. He loved how the house would fill with his brothers and their wives and children. He loved how he and his brothers would tell the same stories they always told each other about the ridiculous excuses that they had invented on the spot as children to appease their angered German-immigrant father. ” . . . era el chupacabras” was the punch-line that could still bend them all over in tears of laughter after all these years. Gabriel knew his son was gay. And despite his wife’s suspicions, that much did not bother him. At least not as much as she thought. He knew to the extent that it did so, such feelings were merely a function of the world in which he had grown up. He knew that there was another world, the world that he wanted for his son, in which it didn’t matter. “The greatest artists of the world. . . Alexander the Great . . . ” he found himself rehearsing the defense. But he knew that with his brothers, this defense would be futile. He prayed that there would be no incident this year that would would cause his oldest brother to stare at him. But in truth, he didn’t care what he had to endure. He worried most of what his son would have to endure. And he knew that eventually his son would seek an end to the need for such endurance. He had watched others leave their families before. He sometimes saw men alone on Christmas Day in the city and thought that that must be why they were alone. Men without women. “Will I lose my son?” “Todo mi amor?” He reached for the clipboard beside him that listed a large pothole at the corner of Connecticut and S Street NW. As he turned on the emergency stop lights, he drew a line through this, the last job of the day. He was excited to imagine his key in the lock of the front door to his house, to anticipate feeling his daughter’s small hands on his face as he lifted her into the air. He shifted the gear into park. He stopped. Sat back in the seat of his truck. He caught his own eyes looking at him in the letterbox rear-view mirror. “I swear, I will never lose my son.” The BMW in front of him left skid-marks as it accelerated. Gabriel winced in anticipation. He heard the wheel of the BMW hit the edge of road. A large wave of water arched several feet into the air and soaked a man as he stepped onto the street. Gabriel felt guilty and sorry that he had not gotten here sooner. He thought the man looked like a type of clown. Drenched in bright colors.
Something big is now gone. Each second feels amazingly new. I think. Is it just a matter of time before the Narrative returns? Where are we all going to go? What is this town? Former train-passengers now mill around the entrance to the station, neither leaving nor arriving. I smell coffee and wonder why the seller made it. I see a man with wooden tennis rackets in one of those square wooden vice braces with the wing nuts that you use to prevent the wood from bending. Is this Trieste or Sitges? It feels like it could be both, either, neither. I look up around the station for signs but there are none. I try and tune into the words being spoken around me but I can’t detect the language. Everyone is understandable to me even though I know they are not speaking in English. They are all asking themselves the same question. Four or five people in addition to me have spotted the man with the tennis rackets and we are all speculating as to what he was planning to do. Someone recognizes the colors on his sweater as those of Oxford University. Another wonders why anyone has wooden tennis rackets anymore. Someone else thinks he might by Bjorn Borg. Two people think its funny to arrive at a place of not-knowing ready to play tennis. I feel on my face that I too am smiling. I fall back on the comfort of old habits and decide a coffee will help. The vendor rises to meet my eye as I walk towards him and he pours me a cup that reaches my hand in perfect timing as I arrive beside him. I feel the coffee is comforting. A large number of people turn, look at me and walk past me to the vendor. I head for the space opening up behind them. I can feel the observations of everyone about every detail of our location though no one seems to know where we are. The crowd moves across the tiled floor like a flock of starlings. I think about emergence. A tall, elderly man, with white hair smiles at me. I feel he is from Zurich, a professor, physics, quantum. He needs coffee. It is funny to see everyone drinking coffee at the same time. Are people talking? I don’t see mouths moving but I feel chatter, constantly. Where am I going to sleep tonight? Everyone looks at me. The crowd moves towards the exit. This is annoying. We are all sharing the same thoughts. Can I have a private thought anymore? Let me try and remember something. I remember drinking fresh water from a mountain stream and biting on a pine needle and how bitter that was. No one is reacting. Was that a private thought? It had no information in it. That memory is worthless to them – why should they react to that? Let me give them something they want. Oh look, there is a sign over there, its Milan, we are in Milan and there is a bus that says city center. I crane my neck forward looking to what must be West, given the position of the sun. The crowd moves in a rush. Someone drops a coffee cup as they run to catch up. Another steps on it. Okay so they heard that. The crowd turns and heads back towards me. They give me the look of death. Two people intentionally walk into me. Hmmn okay, I guess that’s what Google would call page-ranking. I begin to wonder if I issue a series of these false-thought messages, will the community’s ranking of me drop sufficiently that I will be then capable of having a free-thought since no one will pay any attention to what I say? (Did I read somewhere that Google does not even rank a majority of the internet?) In effect yes, but the thought will not be private, just not treated as credible – it will still be public. Damn. The Lear’s Fool strategy doesn’t quite work and I have already dropped some credibility points on that experiment.
This would be a good place for a new paragraph. If the discovery of any opportunity is immediately communicated to everyone then either we find an opportunity that benefits everyone or communication will crowd out everything less than that. But. Communication is not the same as reaction. If I leave the crowd and discover a way out of here, with sufficient distance between me and the crowd they will be unable to take the opportunity before me. They know what you are trying to do – they will follow you. Only if I am credible and apparently I have just dropped a few points on that front so perhaps I can slip away. Perhaps it would work. More coffee. Four people beside me all put their cups out for more coffee. This is nonsense. The vendor in a single moment fills each one. If I am going to harvest the advantage of lost credibility then others are going to do the same. This room is going to rapidly fill with pointless gibberish. You’re such a pessimist. Okay, wait. There will be those that believe in open-source thought and those that do not. Those that open-source will lose every opportunity because they can’t extract a value for their contribution, in fact they themselves won’t be able to utilize the advantage they have discovered. At least those that wipe themselves out with a credibility-bomb have a better chance of finding a place to stay for the night. I think about a nice spacious hotel room, with fresh crisp clean sheets, an elegant relaxing interior, large bath tub, powerful shower and fragrant lavender scent throughout. The crowd sighs. And its upstairs for just a hundred bucks a night. A small group of people look disapprovingly at me. A few head to the stairs. One spectacled executive comes right up to me and asks if I am some kind of nut. I tell him I am a macadamia. I walk around the edge of the train station towards the exit. I notice a beautiful woman as I exit. She looks at me with a very matter of fact look. I smile until I realize she can read my mind. Awkward. I take the main road away from the station. In my experience these invariably lead to a city-center. Twenty people who still believe in me follow me down the streets. They are mainly young people, some techy-looking guys, a Goth, an up-tight looking couple and a girl in a Laura Ashley dress. Behind them an old woman with one of those two-wheel shopping trollies hobbles along. I feel like I should go back and help her, but if I do then where will we go? Jesus, what a following. Oh, sorry . . . I mean, oh whatever.
Diego tried not to look at himself in the mirror as he vigorously shook the can of shaving foam. There wasn’t much left but he was determined to make it last until he and Maria could head to Costco next weekend for their Christmas shopping. Was it F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote that an artist is one who can hold two opposing views at the same time? Diego thought of himself as an artist and he felt the tension of two opposing views as he applied the razor to his throat. The static sound of the blade cutting through the stubble failed to keep him present. His mind was lost in questions. Yesterday he phoned his family back in Huelva to see what was happening for Christmas. It all began well. His mother relayed how his sisters and brothers were all coming home from Barcelona, Madrid and Brussels. He was the only one whose whereabouts and plans were unknown. His mother didn’t say anything but his father didn’t come to the phone. It was the end of the month. Last night he and Maria had sat around the table and worked out the expenses and the bills that needed paying. It was clear something needed to be done. His face was shaved clean. Two patches of foam hung from his ear lobes. He wiped one away and then looked at himself. He was a Spanish conquistador with a single precious pearl to mark his adventures.
Its funny how something can mean nothing to everyone and something to someone. For Diego the sound of a pot hitting the sink sounded like a key turning in the door of a prison cell. He barely had time to tie his apron when the first one arrived. What are you doing Diego? He heard his mother’s voice pronounce very word even though she had never asked that question. What am I doing? He reached for the liquid soap to wash the large black pot. Pupo. He could smell the sea of his childhood as he scrubbed the inside of that pot. His earliest memory of octopus was when Uncle Alessandro pulled one into the fishing boat during that summer when he first went out with the villagers. Diego watched the lost creature crawl around the boat looking to escape. Its reaching, stretching ambitious tentacles pointed to him. Then there was that cosy smell of charcoal and the white suckers looking at him from his grandmother’s yellow platter. It tasted so good and in his mind’s memory that whole summer tasted good. The translucent lines of so many fishing nets like elfish gossamer pulling magic from the warm sea. He rinsed the pot.
Today was a special day in the restaurant. Maria knew. For several years, Chef, the renown José Andrés, had been lobbying the United States government to allow the importation of jamón ibérico. Today the first package was due to arrive. It was going to be a very grand affair. The Spanish ambassador was slated to appear that evening with a host of other dignitaries to celebrate the occasion. The press and the critics were all going to be there. Diego ran his finger along the skin by the back of his jaw bone and felt a patch of unshaven stubble. How many times has Maria teased him about missing that spot? He prayed that Chef would not notice. He thought of that late night several weeks ago when he and Chef had sat at the only illuminated table in the dark empty restaurant. “It’s done,” Chef said. The Americans had agreed to lift the ban and Chef had just placed the first order with Embutidos y Jamones Fermín. Together they raised their ruby red glasses of Rioja, to Spain, and to dreams. For Chef, the bureaucratic decision was loaded with emotion and significance and that evening he let Diego see an exhausted peace that no one had ever seen before. Diego felt he should say something, but instead he just wanted to close his eyes and imagine the taste of the translucent jamón laid across his tongue. He saw the olive groves around his grandmother’s farmhouse, his sister’s yellow boots and multiple annotated copies of Cervantes stacked high in the stable. He saw the laughing smiles of aunts and uncles and felt the earth breathing in summer like a sleeping baby. Moments later he returned. Chef was staring at the floor through half-opened eyes, his hand resting half-dead on his apron. Diego reached for the delicate stem of the glass. Chef awoke, looked at him and smiled.
Diego recognized the voices of the investors approaching the kitchen. As he rinsed the pot they entered in their pinstripe suits. A beautiful tall blond haired woman stood among them as Chef arrived with the first box of jamón ibérico legally imported into the United States. “Congratulations Jose,” the woman said. Chef raised his hand in the air like a successful matador in the corrida. They all smiled and laughed. Deigo quietly placed a small knife next to the box on the table and Chef reached for it, knowing it should be there, and used it to open the seal on the box. It was 7:20 pm. The Ambassador was arriving at 7:30. Chef reached for the best platter and started to plate the ham, delicately laying each individual slice like memories in a eulogy. Diego reached for another pot and started scrubbing intently. The sous chefs were busy chopping. One of the investors glanced sideways and then whispered urgently to Chef – “he’s here – you should be the first to welcome him.” Chef went to the sink to wash his hands, grabbed a towel, dropped it and left. The platter lay there. Diego couldn’t help staring. How silly that we should all get excited by a plate of ham he thought, and then, at the same time, it looked like the most beautiful thing in the world. “Diego, Diego!” “Si Papa.” His father lay crouched beside him, his finger pointing through the tall grass. About five feet ahead, among the oak trees stood a family of black Iberian pigs eating acorns. “You see Diego – this is why it tastes so good – do you see now?” “Yes Papa.” At that time the wild pigs seemed like magical creatures moving through the evening forest as the first leaves began to fall. He was close to his father then. He could smell pipe tobacco and the cold steel of the shotgun.
“Jose wants everyone to come out front,” the head chef bellowed to the line and sous. They all smiled, moved various dishes off the heat, and quick-paced out to the front. Diego rinsed the pot and reached for a colander. The kitchen was empty, white and cold. Chef burst in and reached for the platter. His foot had just returned to the saddle of the kitchen door when he stopped and turned. “Diego!” “Si Chef!” Chef stopped, walked towards Diego and reached for a fresh plate. He grabbed a baguette, broke it, split it, and laid a slice of jamón across the white soft center and handed it to Diego. “A aquellos que pagan el precio mas alto por sognar, debe de ir la primar prueba del cielo.” Diego felt the hard crustiness of the bread, the soft whiteness like clouds viewed from an airplane, and then the velvet, fruity softness of the jamón ibérico and home. He felt his father beside him and the aroma of sweet tobacco. La primar prueba del cielo.
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.
I enjoy the guilty pleasure of a late breakfast. I defend myself by citing to the old refrain of Noel Coward that “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” You can then well imagine my surprise this morning in finding none other than an Englishman seated in the breakfast room. “King calls for understanding” was his defense and he had it published on the front page of the Bangkok Times. As I sat down, he lowered his newspaper. I could see from his cleric’s collar that he was an Anglican vicar. He gave me a grandfatherly smile and I said good morning in return. He looked at me, suspecting perhaps from my accent that I was European. I answered by ordering tea instead of my usual coffee.
I would avoid the milk, he said leaning over, it’s a little off.
Darjeeling is best without, I replied and he concurred.
He introduced himself as “the Reverend Donald Kingsley,” which made me want to ask exactly how many other Reverend Donald Kingsleys were currently vying for the title. He was from Oxford, and in Thailand for an ecumenical conference on inter-faith tolerance. He came south from Bangkok for a little R&R, “as the Americans call it.” He had been here four days at this point and was getting a little restless. I told him of my plans that day to take some photographs at the Thai boxing gym in town and that he was welcome to come along. He accepted, eagerly. He seemed harmless, a big white whale gasping for air on a beach full of blackened Swedes. Our Cantonese landlady cleared the tables and having overheard my plans offered to call someone she knew at the gym to fix us up. A few minutes later I was standing in the lobby while the Reverend went to wash up.
Sawatdee Kaa, ka, Hotel Amanta, . . . ka . . . I have guest want to come to gym, ka? Ok . . . Don’ Kingla . . . ka . . . you know him? . . . Ok . . . maybe 30 minutes . . . ka, also photos . . . Khawp khun kha.
Cries of “welcome, welcome” washed over our red tuk tuk as it slid into a casual repose by the side of the road in front of a bar. I confirmed with the driver that the gym was in the back. The Reverend and I made our way past the charcoal grills at the entrance and through the sea of pretty girls, nodding and apologizing as we went;
Sorry, no money, we go boxing, muay thai, no boom boom, holy man, maybe tomorrow, etc.
Once past the darkened bar we could see three boxing rings, each singularly illuminated by a bank of precariously suspended florescent tubes. There was no real division between the bar and the gym. The place smelled of beer, metal and rubber with the occasional drift of cheap perfume. An old man, with a face like knotty pine, approached us and went straight to the Reverend. He shook the Reverend’s hand. He shook it whole-heartedly.
Very glad to meet you Don’ King’ – I show you best fighters – only the best – you pick winner – these guys best in Thailand.
We were escorted to the raised bench seats set against the far wall of the gym. They looked down on the three rings and towards the bar. One of the bar girls brought us each a bottle of Singha beer. The old man went to talk to two fighters and they replied to him with punctuated glances at the Reverend. I tried to figure out the best setting for my camera.
The younger of the two boxers, dressed in blue Nike shorts, began warming up in the corner of the center ring. He danced from one foot to the other, bobbed and weaved and threw shadow punches. Behind him, I could see, by the light of the exit, the bare midriff of one of the girls as she leaned backwards across the bar. Someone stood in the doorway and she disappeared again into the shadows. In the other corner the slightly older fighter, in black Hilfigger shorts, was standing still. He moved his gloves up and down to his face, his eyes focused on Nike’s feet. Then he turned and looked at the Reverend. The Reverend sat beside me, oblivious in his own midriff and wiping the brown snout of the beer bottle with his cloth handkerchief. I told him that I needed to get closer to the ring because of the light. He nodded, dabbing the beads of perspiration from his brow. The boxers moved towards each other. One of the girls moved from the shadows towards the Reverend.
Nike threw the first punch, a light right-hook teaser to Hilfigger’s head, just to gauge his reaction. Hilfigger merely stepped back. Nike was lean, swift on his feet, his face younger than his body. Hilfigger looked like he had been carved with a hatchet, was slightly shorter than the other, stocky. His arms seemed disproportionally large for his body and made him look like a cross between a bull and a crab. Nike lightly stepped to move to Hilfigger’s right. Hilfigger hit him with a solid hard right to his ribs to keep him center. Nike moved swiftly to the left and out of range, smiled, but moved his left arm slightly to defuse the pain. Hilfigger lowered his brow and took note. Nike danced, threw another punch to Hilfigger’s head – this one connected. Hilfigger, indifferent, turned his shoulders like a Greek galley, faced Nike broadside and framed him into the corner. Nike’s gloves were up but Hilfigger undeterred laid seige. Each punch was louder and heavier than the previous, each one aimed like a steel wedge trying to cleave open Nike’s arms and give Hilfigger access to the soft guts inside. Given the pounding force, it was inevitable that Hilfigger would eventually break through. He interspersed the body blows with fakes to the head but then a single direct punch cleaved Nike’s arms, hit him solid in the chest and threw his body back against the padded corner. Nike instinctively raised his arms to counterbalance the backward momentum and Hilfigger went in for the stomach. 2, 4, 6, 8 – Nike felt each and every strike. Hilfigger leaned in, his shoulders preventing any defense by Nike, 10, 12. Only the sight of the muscles moving like pistons along Hilfigger’s back could tell Nike when to prepare for the next blow to his stomach. 16, 17, 18, the rhythm was now that of single heavy deadweight punches and it became almost soothing to those of us that merely watched. Time stood still, beads of perspiration moved, slowly, vividly, on bodies, faces, bottles, lips.
Awareness slowly returned. Hilfigger pulled back, looked at the Reverend. Nike hung now on the ropes like wet washing. The Reverend was in the shadows talking to the bar girl that had shuffled up beside him, her fingers thumbing his collar. Hilfigger returned to work. Nike had gotten to his feet but his arms, eager to stop the body blows were now too low. This was a set up – this was not a fair fight – this kid knew nothing, only pain. The Reverend seemed preoccupied. Perhaps amidst the onslaught, Nike realized that his role in this whole affair was to suffer. He threw a punch that connected directly with Hilfigger’s face. Hilfigger, surprised, now returned to script. Nike’s head did not behave like you would think a head should. His face became a sea of seemingly malleable flesh, absorbing each punch, rippling, punch, blood projected from his nose, smeared across his chest and ran down into his groin. Just before the last one, the one that knocked him out, Nike faced the Reverend, peering through a riverlet of blood streaming from above his left eye. Hilfigger looked at the Reverend too. The Reverend was now watching. Hilfigger slowly turned his entire body along an axis that ran from his left heel to his right shoulder. His fist met Nike just below the temple.
As Nike lost consciousness we all gradually floated into the ring, the boxers, the old man, the girls, the Reverend. We were all together in the ring beneath the florescent lights. Flies buzzed among the bright fluorescent tubes and you could see the pock-marks on the faces of the girls beneath the heavy make-up. Everybody was squashed against everyone else like we were all becoming one mass of limbs crushed togther like scrap metal in a junkyard. There was the smell of underarm, fresh blood and charcoal. Hilfigger looked at the Reverend.
You see I’m the best.
The Reverend looked down at Nike creamed across the canvas. The old man looked at the Reverend – a big white whale gasping for air. Everyone was breathing deeply the smell of cheap perfume and violence. The Reverend moved to speak.
I interrupted and laughed. I put my hand on Hilfigger’s shoulders and said;
Too fast, you too fast, we make no money.
He laughed, the old man laughed, but not the others. I moved towards the light of the exit, put my arm around the old man and kept the Reverend in front of me. We were about 10 feet from the door. Its white light seemed so pure and clean. The momentum of the room and its occupants followed me. 8 feet. Nike remained on the canvas. I asked the old man for his phone number and told him that it was a great fight, one of the best we had seen in fact. 4 feet. He asked me for Mr. King’s number. I pretended not to hear and confirmed with a look of concern that the piece of paper he gave me was in fact his direct number. The Reverend was already outside, standing like someone in a shower, washing himself clean in the white light.
Yes, that my number so you call me okay?
I looked at him and said that I would definitely call him. I then put my hands together in the traditional Thai greeting and raised them high to my face to indicate that I held him in great esteem. He smiled, slapped me on the shoulder and then turned and went back into the bar.
It is the end of the rainy season and in the evenings there is usually a downpour for an hour or two. So I sauntered around the theatre district, keeping a vigilant eye open for a restaurant or café where I could hang out while the rains passed. I stopped at a place called Three Nations that serves Chinese, Indian and Indonesian food. I walked up to the hostess and told her that I was not going to eat but that I just wanted to sit and have a drink. She steered me to a table that was already occupied by three other Westerners. One of the three, dressed warmly in a waistcoat, pulled out the remaining empty chair and offered it to me. I nodded, smiled, and sat down.
In front of me was a tall bearded man wearing a plastic medieval breastplate and a blouson shirt. To his left was a sallow-faced individual in a crushed linen suit and a Panama hat. The guy with the Panama hat must have seen the curious look on my face because he responded:
Before you ask – we’re performing in a play at a local theatre. It’s about a Chinese guy who travels to Broadway and meets fictional characters from books he read and films he saw when he was a kid. – I’m supposed to be Humphrey Bogart, that’s Don Quixote, if you can believe it, and beside you is none other than Jimmy J’s Leopold Bloom. ‘Course see we really don’t exist, we’re just figments of this kid’s imagination. So that’s our story and we’re here grabbing a bite to eat before we head to work. What’s yours?
I pursed my lips and nodded my head to acknowledge both the unusual nature of the circumstances and the plausibility of his explanation. The waitress arrived. She didn’t seem at all phased by the three unlikely characters arranged around the table, but quickly, and sans various consonants, asked for their orders. Quixote leaned towards her,
What would you recommend that’s typical of the Indian food in Singapore?
The waitress leaned away from Quixote, pointed towards his menu and recommended either the mutton Hyderabad or the Apollo chicken masala. Quixote asked for both with a bowl of saffron rice and some garlic onion kulcha. As she quickly scribbled his order, he asked if she was sure that was authentic Singaporean Indian food. She rolled her head from side to side as she confirmed that his order was very spicy, very authentic. She then turned to Humphrey Bogart. Bogart without looking at the menu ordered five Indonesian dishes; Rendang Daging Sapi, Gulai Singkong, Sambal Teri Tempe, Kari Kamping and a Tiger beer. Quixote turned to me and began to ask me a question but stopped and apologized for interrupting Bloom. Bloom asked for the fried oyster omelet but the waitress said she had just sold the last one to someone else. She asked if he liked chicken; he said he did; she recommended the Hainanese Chicken Rice and Bloom agreed. Bloom asked for water, Quixote a Kingfisher beer. I got an avocado and chocolate drink – it was the weirdest thing I could find to drink and I could always grab a beer later. Ordering the food had apparently helped to break the ice and Quixote, folding his arms in front of his breastplate and leaning across the table, began to question me again;
What have you discovered in Singapore? How have you found the people? Have you tried each of the cuisines? Did you go into the neighborhoods to try the real deal? Runs through you like liquid fire but tastes great right? The problem with me you see is that my curiosity is bigger than my stomach. I want to try everything, to taste everything, but I have to eat fast, as you will see because of the anxiety you see, it kills my appetite after the first 5-10 minutes. I get bored – want to try other things but then I have this large amount of food in front of me – its very annoying, and expensive on an actor’s wage I can tell you. The funny thing is I begin to resent the food that just minutes before I was lusting. There’s something profound in that don’t you think? About man and desire and everything?
Bogart slowly raised his beer bottle with a languid air that seemed to mock Quixote’s introspection. He looked at me and asked
So when are you leaving?
Before I could answer, Bloom asked me if I liked fonts.
Before you leave you should go to the malls and check out the fonts. If you want to know a people, look at their ads – they are designed to appeal to what they value – its all in the fonts. You should check that out – if you’re interested that is.
The first of many small bowls began to arrive. Without waiting for the others, Bogart began tumbling his Indonesian curries onto his large rice plate. Don Quixote tossed back his Kingfisher as the waitress began pouring rice onto the banana leaf in front of him. She served Bloom last, placing a glass of water beside an austere looking plate of steamed chicken and rice. Bogart pointed towards Bloom’s glass;
You should have told them no ice.
Quixote pointed at me with his now masala-stained finger;
Never get ice. The drinks come straight from the bottlers, our friends in Atlanta and elsewhere, but God knows where the ice comes from – never order ice.
There was a large clash of metal cymbals at the entrance to the restaurant. Bloom dropped his chicken and Quixote stopped feeding mutton to his mouth. A group of young men, dressed as a Chinese dragon, were dancing at the front of the restaurant as part of the Chinese New Year’s celebrations. The dragon rocked from side to side, front to back and then knelt before a brass bowl of oranges on the floor. Everybody watched at the beginning and then slowly, as there seemed no end in sight, each turned back to his food as the clattering continued loudly in the background. Quixote pushed back from the table, each of his dishes half finished. He looked at me and smiled. I nodded in return acknowledging our shared understanding of his intestines.
We need to get out of here, said Bogart.
Bloom checked his watch and reached for the bill to work out everyone’s share. As I reached for my wallet he stretched out his arm and told me not to worry about it. I asked if he was sure and he said that I had had so little it would only complicate the calculation to consider it. All four of us walked out together into the wet street. The rains had passed and the sun was setting. I turned to them;
It was a pleasure to meet you guys – good luck with the play.
Quixote shook my hand. I patted Bloom on the shoulder and Bogart raised his eyebrows as if this was just the beginning. I turned to head in the opposite direction even though I didn’t know where I was going. People walked by talking on cell-phones. I found a sign for the subway and headed in that direction.