[Note: This story began as a dream from which I woke shaken. I immediately wrote it down, to see if I could get not just the events but the feeling of the dream into prose. Maybe I did, maybe not. In any case one of the characteristics of dream is that things do not explain themselves, they simply happen. Later I fleshed it out into a story. About half is from what I remembered of the dream, the rest invented. For example, the end is exactly from the dream; the clown came later. Yes, the title echoes Hemingway, but it needs to be that title. The story, by the way, is R-rated at best.]
I wake to a silent house, the reek of stale coffee rising from downstairs. Apparently my hosts have gone out. If they were here I would be hearing their raucous conversation. But I hardly know them. I’ve only had the forced camaraderie of an assigned guest.
The morning looks dismal outside half-closed blinds. From the bed I watch dust motes turning in the light from the window. With nothing better to do I drag myself up to dress and make my way down two flights from the attic bedroom to the kitchen. There is no note from my hosts, only on the table an arrow drawn on a sheet of paper, pointing to the oven where I find dried-out sausage and eggs.
I eat, reflecting on the goddamned pathetic past 24 hours. I came to this country, a long overnight flight, to hear an orchestra play a work of mine—which one, I was not informed. The flight had been arranged by somebody, but no idea who sent me the tickets. When I arrived yesterday I was driven to this tall plain house in a row of tall plain houses. The driver said he would pick me up for the concert in two hours. I asked if he knew which of my pieces they were playing. “I drive only,” he stammered.
Last night the couple who were my hosts made dinner, prattling on with shrill gaiety and now and then speaking to me, but they knew only a few words of my language. As soon as we were done eating, my driver appeared to take me to the concert. My hosts would not be attending.
I entered to find an old hall of ornate and crumbling plaster, filled with an unenthusiastic unto sullen audience. There was no program book. Instead, after the orchestra had entered and tuned, a gaunt old man in a crumpled suit sat down in a chair at the side of the stage and began to talk. It appeared he was to describe the pieces. In his rambling introductions, accompanied by weary gestures of his hands, the only words I could understand were the names of composers: Mozart, Handel, Glinka.
The Glinka came after the intermission, which I spent wandering among crowds of people talking in low tones in their language. There seemed to be nobody present who knew who I was. I began to wonder if this was some absurd mistake, that my music wasn’t on the program at all. But obviously somebody had arranged my flight and accommodations, such as they were.
Finally the old man at the side of the stage began to describe the last piece on the program. I could just recognize my name in his pronunciation. He spoke for a long time, obviously explaining that the next work was a modern one by a foreign composer who was present. There was a rising murmur in the audience, which I identified as annoyance. As he went on, his hands tracing weary circles in the air, a number of people rose, pulled on their coats, and stalked up the aisles. When he finally stopped talking, the rest of the audience settled into their seats, jaws clenched.
The conductor strode out to a smattering of applause, nodded curtly, turned and gave the downbeat. My music began. At least it was supposed to be my music. I didn’t recognize it at all. After a moment of panic, wondering if I was hallucinating or losing my mind entirely, I realized it was an old piece of mine, twenty or more years old, which had been performed once and then gratefully forgotten by everybody including me. It had lain unnoticed on my publisher’s list, from where this conductor had picked it out. The outlandish thought came to me that since the piece is called Absolution, he may simply have chosen the first title on the list.
My music went on and on, the players looking and sounding sour and bored. I’d long stopped writing pseudo-earnest pieces with stupid titles like Absolution, and long stopped hoping for absolution for anything from anybody. If I hardly remembered the piece, I did remember that my so-called friends and I had agreed it was long and thin, brimming with unearned self-importance. As it lurched and dithered on, a steady trickle of listeners got up and left.
By the time it was over I was trembling and drenched in sweat. Much of the audience had vanished. The scattered applause hardly lasted the time it took me to sprint up the aisle and shake the conductor’s hand. From the edge of the stage he bowed to me, clicked his heels, extended his arm without speaking. When I got back to my seat the applause had guttered out and people were already on their feet, shuffling toward the exits. No one looked my way except my driver, who materialized with an anxious frown to thread me through the crowd and drive me back to the house, where my hosts had gone to bed.
Now, eating my stale breakfast the morning after, I can only sigh, put it down as one more amusing story to tell at parties. Another of my famous fiascos. I am startled to notice it’s almost noon. My flight does not leave until midnight. I am contemplating going out to attempt some sightseeing when the doorbell rings.
I consider not answering, since it can only be for my hosts. But the jangling of the hand-pulled bell goes on and on, until with a curse I rise and make my way to the front door. I open it to find someone who may or may not be a postman standing on the stoop. He is wearing a faded green uniform, military or perhaps civil, with a gray cap sporting a tarnished silver insignia. Parked on the sidewalk behind him is an aged bicycle.
Like apparently goddamned everybody here, he does not know my language. With a brisk nod of his stubbly face he clicks his heels and shoves in front of me a brown envelope, pointing to the addressee. I am startled to see my name, at this address. There is no return address and no stamp, only an embossed official-looking seal in the upper left corner.
“W-what is this?” I stammer. He shakes his head, opens his palms in a gesture of incomprehension. I gape at the envelope, wondering if it might be a note or even an honorarium from the orchestra—pay had not been discussed—, when he places on top of the envelope a form and a pen.
On the form I see my name handwritten in large capitals, with an empty line hand-drawn beside it. It is a receipt I am supposed to sign. Shaking my head, I sign the form with a certain ruffled extravagance. The man carefully folds the document and stows it in his side pocket, patting the pocket smartly. He steps back, awkwardly salutes, does a military about-face and returns to his bicycle. I watch him manhandle it out to the street and pedal off without looking back.
I’m thoroughly sick of this fucking business. There is nothing I wish more profoundly than to be on the plane and be finally in my house, for all the sad histories of that place. The time before my plane leaves seems an endless desert of hours. But after all, maybe the letter is a check, or a least a note of appreciation. Though of course if it is the latter, I’ll never be able to read it.
To prolong the suspense, given that this is likely to be the day’s only excitement, I carry the letter unopened to the kitchen and finish my cold breakfast staring at the envelope propped on a saltcellar. It strikes me that in both my so-called career and my so-called life my music has had too many stumbling and uncommitted performances to tepid applause, and I’ve had too goddamned many nights in cities and hotel rooms and bedrooms where I’m a stranger.
At length, with a sigh, I rise to put my dishes in the sink. Taking a carving knife, I return to the table and pick up the letter, slash open one end and shake the contents onto the table.
It’s a single sheet of paper, folded into some complicated pattern that baffles my fingers in trying to open it. Finally it unfolds. There are so many creases that I find it hard to make out. I flatten it on the table and smooth it as best I can with my palm.
The first thing I see is an official seal in the upper left corner of the page, a grander and more ornate version of the one on the envelope. Then I realize, with an exclamation of something near pleasure, that the text is actually in my language, neatly lettered onto the page by hand, the same hand that addressed the envelope. As I read the curt sentences one by one my flesh clenches as if I’ve gotten a chill.
“Greetings,” it begins, affixing my name. “Because of your actions in another country, the Court has reached a judgment in your case.” Judgement? Case? The letter goes on to say that the decision of the Court is final, as in all such cases. I am ordered to perform certain actions that are indicated on the other enclosed sheet. Puzzled, I run my fingers over the envelope I thought I’d emptied. Sure enough there is a lump in the middle, another folded sheet that failed to fall out. I return to the document on the table.
It concludes with a stern exhortation that this is an order from the highest authority, that I must perform the required action to the end omitting no particulars however they make strike my foreign sensibility, and that attempts to escape my responsibility will have the most serious consequences. At the bottom sprawls an incomprehensible signature, followed by an equally incomprehensible notation of his title.
“Christ,” I groan aloud. “If I miss my flight because of some legal horseshit, that’s beyond the bounds of a story for parties.”
Impatiently I shake the envelope, but the other document fails to dislodge. Looking inside, I see it’s stuck to the side with glue from the flap. I tear the envelope apart and, after some angry scrabbling, unfold the new sheet, in the process tearing it across the center.
Now I’m swearing as I try to align the document on the table. It is a half page rather than a full one, again with the embossed seal in the corner, but this time the text is typewritten, on some ragged old machine. At least it’s in my language again, more or less. With difficulty, struggling to keep the torn halves together, I read the outlandish sentences with mounting consternation:
In afternoon you be met by female person. You have not to find her, as it is she who must have found you. She knows fully of you case and she has been informed of her duty, which she has fully affirmed. You may freely chat with this female if you desire and if desire share a meal and beverages with her, at expense of Court. But this for three hours only. By that moment at latest, you must return accompanying her to you lodging, to you private chamber, and there you are required to have congress with this person. She understand this requirement and has fully affirmed. Immediately as you have complete this act of congress, it is the wish and order of this Court that you fullfil this decree by terminate the life of this female. This end of course she not cognizant of. Which means you do so are at you descretion, but it must be accomplish by you own hands, i.e. not with firearm or other machinery. It is suggested that strangulation is profferred method. When you have completed this decree in full you will be declare entirely free and at-large, having fullfiled the order of this Court.
It must be stress that this order is authorized fully at highest level, and it is final decree. Failure to act or any attempt to excape will be treated with full severity of law, as a supreme action of contemp to this Court and this Government.
I finish reading it with my mind in a wail of white noise. With trembling fingers holding the torn halves together I read it a second and a third time. I am overcome by a maze of thoughts, the first being: “I can still make the plane.” The second, of course, being, “What the fuck do you mean, make the plane? This is a joke. Some kind of weird cruel joke, but it has to…” But who could play a joke like this, and why would they want to? Was it somehow arranged by friends back home, some elaborate prank involving cohorts in this buttfuck country? How would they know anybody here? Besides I don’t remember telling anybody I was coming. And why would the few actual friends I possess want to do this to me?
With a chill in my groin it enters my mind that this is no joke at all. It’s some incomprehensible decree of some ghastly star chamber of some ghastly fucking political order I know nothing about. Visions of foreign jails dance in my head, people imprisoned for life, eating cockroaches to survive, flogged and stoned for smoking a joint.
I do understand, very clearly, one relevant thing.: There is no limit, no limit whatsoever to what governments can do to people, if they simply want to.
But this, for godssake, I think. This surely is not real, surely at least this is too fucking much. I’ll go to the… I remember reading that there is no embassy in this country, the implication being: If you want to travel there, you poor fool, you’re on your own. Then white noise again, in my mind.
I don’t know how long I sit there at the kitchen table. After some amount of time, my guts shaking, I get up and ransack the kitchen for a drink. All I can find is the end of a bottle of wine, sitting uncorked in the refrigerator. I upend the bottle and drink the bitter icy liquid in one slug. It’s no help.
A few more minutes standing in the middle of the kitchen and something on the order of a plan has emerged. I can hope and still do hope that this isn’t real, it’s a nightmare from which I will awake, or a joke or the wrong order or the wrong person on the envelope. But you can’t afford to count on it not being real, I tell myself. Can’t afford. If it is real I see one chance. She has to find me, the order says. That’s my chance.
I run up the stairs and open my bag. From it I take my plane ticket and passport and all the local currency I have, small ragged bills with smudged pictures of generals and politicians and more incomprehensible words and numbers. I can’t remember how much of my own currency I paid for it. All I can hope is it’s enough for a cab to the airport and something to eat.
I rattle down the stairs with plane ticket, passport, and cash in my pockets. If I have to get on the plane without my luggage, so be it. I have to presume they’re watching me and I must not look as if I’m trying to escape. But there was no order that I have to stay in the house. If I do some complicated sightseeing and lose them I can still deny I was escaping. If they accost me at the airport and the girl has failed to find me, it’s their problem, according to their own words.
Jesus, I think as I reach the front door. You really don’t know if it’s real. Why don’t you call it a game, a game you’re playing with somebody who’s playing a game with you? It’s hide-and-seek, escaping but not escaping. It’s up to them to find you. Only don’t assume, don’t take chances. After all at the worst, at the very worst, it’s not you that’s supposed to get fucked and die.
Out on the street I walk aimlessly, wondering if I’m being followed but seeing nobody who appears to be interested in me. After a few blocks I find myself on a broad street lined with shops selling formless clothes, bread and cakes, poultry feed. A few shoppers struggle in and out of stores, most of them heavy old women in headscarves, lugging paper bags of clothes and other items. I realize the clothes I see wadded up in the bags are used, so presumably the women are bringing them to barter in the stores. This goddam country, I murmur. This buttfuck country.
I walk briskly, taking a turn here and there, trying to throw off anybody who might be tailing me. If anybody is, I can’t detect them. I find little traffic, but there are dark-green buses smoking and coughing down every street. At length, feeling naked in the open, I go into a bakery. In its sticky-sweet atmosphere I imitate a customer, perusing cases full of black bread, baroquely-decorated pastries and cakes, greasy pirogis.
What I’m looking for is a rear exit. By the end of the cases I see the edge of a door around a corner in back. I stroll toward it, expecting to be stopped, but nobody calls out. I open the door onto a long alley. After quietly closing the door behind me, I dash down the alley and across a side street, then two more alleys and streets. Periodically I look back to see if somebody is chasing me. No one.
I’m hardly an athlete. After another minute of running I collapse groaning and gasping in the back doorway of a shop. It takes a long time to get my breath. Then I compose myself, open the door and walk in, trying to look the interested customer. For chrissake, it’s a women’s foundation garment shop. Rows of corsets on chipped plaster torsos. A saleswoman coming toward me, shaking her finger, presumably asking what the hell I’m doing. I brush past her, waving aside her complaints.
Emerging onto the sidewalk I find one of the smoke-belching buses pulling up to a stop. I decide to get on it, vacate the area entirely. The bus has its destination on the front but of course I can’t read it. It’s away from here, anyway. Maybe I can spend the day riding buses, crouching out of sight, then at the end find a bus to the airport. Idly I wonder how I’ll ask directions when nobody understands anything I say. Who knows. Flap my arms.
I get on to discover that the bus is empty. Even though I feel sure I’ve lost anybody following me, I can’t help wondering if they could have dispatched it especially for me. Who knows that either. I’ve got to do something and this is the only thing I can think of.
I pick a bill out of my wallet at random and hand it to the driver, a little stubbly guy in a dirty uniform and hat. I hope to God there’s some change. He regards the bill with the particular annoyance of a bus driver receiving a large denomination, snarls something at me. I can only shrug, gesture at my mouth like a dumb person. Since he can see I’m a foreigner I expect him to look at my wallet and pick a smaller denomination. Instead, muttering curses he pulls out a roll of money and begins laboriously peeling them off. Finally he hands me a stack of threadbare bills.
As the bus pulls out I make my way to the back where there are no windows, wondering if I’m going to be delivered straight to the police. But in the next stops a few other passengers turn up, most of them riding only a few blocks before getting off. I note that since nobody stays on, nobody seems to be shadowing me unless they’re doing it in relays. Besides, most of the passengers are old women, the same ones going in and out of the stores lugging items for barter. I notice their shopping bags remain full of old clothes. They must be going from store to store, trying to find somebody to accept their castoffs.
How long do I have to put up with this misery before I escape to the airport? How long before the plane leaves? Seven hours? Eight? I look at my watch. God almighty, it’s nearly ten hours before my plane takes off, and I want to be there at the last minute.
After an hour I see a block I recognize and realize that this bus route must be a circuit of the downtown area. Not good. I’d hoped I was being hauled out to the suburbs. I’m wondering if I should get off and take another bus when I see that we’ve pulled into a stop with a queue lined up. Behind them, looming over the sidewalk, is a large building of soot-blackened marble with enormous classical columns. I can’t read the sign in front of the building but the total effect unquestionably says art museum. Maybe a good place to get lost in. Browse the paintings for a few hours, melt into the crowd, have some lunch if there’s a café. Compared to the stifling boredom and anxiety of the bus, almost a pleasant prospect.
The driver is about to pull out when I spring to the front crying, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” He screeches the bus to a halt and slams open the door, cursing at me as I descend the steps. At the bottom I stumble, which draws a laugh from the passengers on the bus. As it pulls away in a cloud of exhaust I collect myself and head for the door of the museum as fast as I can without looking suspicious.
In the gigantic, echoing stone lobby there is no art and no human presence at all except a desiccated man, in another of the invariably ill-fitting suits, sitting behind a wooden desk and coughing wetly into a handkerchief. I go to him and do my pantomime indicating I can’t speak the language, I don’t know the currency, I am an idiot foreigner. I show him the wad of bills from the bus and with great deliberation he extracts some. After a curt wave at the stairs behind him, he renders me invisible.
I trudge up the stairs and turn into the first gallery I come to. There are exactly three people in the large room, an old man and a student couple arguing in front of a painting of trees. If I’d hoped to get lost in a museum crowd, I can forget about it. I can’t think of anything to do but keep moving, watch for anybody watching me, maybe try to find an out of the way gallery somewhere, or a back table in a café.
Look at the paintings and don’t think, I tell myself. Be alert but don’t think. You’ll only get scared. You’ve probably lost them. Assume you’ve lost them, or nobody was following you in the first place. I make a circuit of the gallery, pretending to examine the canvases. I don’t recognize a single artist. It occurs to me that all the works in the room are by painters of this country and nearly all of them are of trees, with a few of cows.
In the next room the prevailing motif is of handsome, determined workers of both sexes grasping farm implements and striding boldly into the future. Also a few paintings of large-eyed children that are supposed to be cute, some of them also striding boldly into the future. Also more cows. After viewing six rooms off the long dingy hall I conclude that the artists of this country paint only trees, children, heroic workers, and cows, all in a kind of runny Impressionist style. Meanwhile I have concluded that some of the paintings are more “modern,” in that the cows are rendered as piebald blobs floating in a puddle of dirty green I take to indicate grass.
In desperation I shuttle from empty room to nearly empty room, standing in each doorway sweeping my eyes around the walls to find anything recognizable or even endurable. In the last room off the hall I am in the doorway about to turn on my heel when I notice a flash of color on the far wall. Somebody is standing in front of the painting, obscuring most of it, but in the corners I see a smoky pink unlike anything else I’ve seen in this excruciating museum.
I make my way to the painting. The young woman in front of it moves politely to the side, and I am confronted by what appears to be a child’s drawing of a clown. There it is, archetypal in its stumbling lines, its ovoid body decked with big orange buttons. One of the stick-figure hands holds a wobbly line that ascends to a misshapen balloon, the purple coloring of it zigzagging out of the lines. The clown floats above a puke-yellow floor, behind him lying that pink I saw from across the room, which clashes nastily with the yellow of the floor.
After a moment of staring in disbelief I realize that whoever perpetrated this monstrosity is actually a painter. The picture gives the impression of a child’s crayon but is in fact done in oils. And the picture is not just any child’s drawing of a clown but somehow the distillation and summation of all children’s stupid, maladroit pictures of clowns. Except no child would draw that soul-scouring face. The eyes are bugging in maniac joy, the pupils nearly dropped out of sight, and the mouth… My god, the mouth. It’s gaping in an impossible psycho-killer smile, the teeth huge, misshapen and carnivorous. This clown looks like he is about to leap off the canvas and sink those monstrous fangs into your throat. I see that in the corner of his mouth the artist has made a little drip of crimson, mixed in a way to make it glisten wetly.
“Excuse me?” the person next to me says.
I am so transfixed by the painting that for a moment I don’t respond. “Oh, it’s…” I finally get out. “What did I…”
“Excuse me, you said ‘My God,’ I think.”
I look up in confusion, then down. It’s a girl with short black hair, looking up at me, the top of her head hardly reaching my chest.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I thought I thought those words, not said them aloud. I’m… Wait. You speak my language. You’re the first person I’ve met here who does!”
“Yes,” she says. “I speak it a little.”
I feel enormous relief having somebody to talk to. “No, really” I tell her reassuringly, “You speak very well, hardly any accent.”
“Thank you,” she says. “I have studied.”
There is an awkward silence. Despite myself my eyes drift from her and return to the grisly image in front of us.
“Do you like this painting now?” she asks politely. I look at her again. She appears early 20s, slightly built, somewhere between waif and gamine, a little pretty but only just. She wears an old plaid flannel shirt and ballooning pseudo-jeans, a knitted purse over her shoulder. On her face is a certain ironic half-smile.
“Good God,” I can only reply, waving my hand toward the thing. “Jesus Christ. I mean, I guess it’s extraordinary in a way, but it’s the goddamndest thing I’ve… Oh shit, I mean, I’m sorry, excuse my language.”
“It is no problem,” she says.
“I mean, this is…it’s utterly different from anything else in the museum. Who is this, this, how did it get here?”
“Oh, he is one of our modern artists. Most of them show in the modern art museum outside of the city, but in this place they always hang one painting from that museum, so the people can see what it is like.” ”
“Oh shit. I mean… Sorry.”
“No, it is no problem.”
“What are the other paintings like in the modern museum?”
She shrugs, turns her mouth down. “Well you know, most of them they are sort of like this one.” She gives a little shudder of her shoulders. “They are clowns, or big dogs. Scary things, yes?”
“I think I would agree,” I breathe, shaking my head. “Scary things. But are you actually saying that the modern artists paint only clowns and dogs?”
“Well, you see, this is the museum of traditional art, and the other is the museum of modern art. The artists in that other museum are called anti-revolutionary painters. So they make what they do, and the artists of this museum make what they do.” She says this with a certain tincture of irritation, at having to explain the obvious.
“Anti-revolutionary. Is that illegal, to be anti-revolutionary? And who decides who is what?”
“Oh no, is not illegal, no. This is free country for artists, for everybody. Only if you are a painter the police gives you a, a, what do you call it, an official piece of paper…”
“Yes, a certificate saying what kind of painter you are.”
Now I am looking at her rather than the painting in disbelief. “Wait. Let me get this straight. If you are a certified anti-revolutionary painter you can paint anything you like, as long as it’s hideous pictures of clowns and dogs. If you’re a traditional painter you do trees, kids, workers, and cows, and that’s it.”
She shrugs again. “Well, it is something like that I suppose, if you wish to put it so.”
“Look, I’m not trying to insult you, your, I’m only trying, you know, to understand how… But Jesus Christ, I mean, dogs and clowns? And the anti-revolutionary paintings, they’re required to be awful, I gather, so people will hate them?”
She turns down her mouth with no reply. I’m getting on her nerves. “Does anybody ever go to the other museum?” I ask.
“Oh, yes. The people go there sometimes because they are curious. The anti-revolutionary museum is not very often open, but the people go. You are allowed to go one time without registering, but after that you must register.”
“What, are people arrested for going back?”
“Oh no, of course not. Only you must register.”
I stretch my arms upward, bring my hands down clasped on my head and puff out my cheeks. My famous gesture of bemusement. Her eyes are wandering to the other paintings. Clearly she’s ready to be free of me. I’ll set her free. “I’m sorry for all these questions,” I say after another awkward silence. “After all I’m only here for a couple of days and I can’t imagine, I, I mean I don’t understand how things work here.”
“Oh, you are leaving soon?” she asks without interest, her eyes drifting over the room.
“Yes, flying out tonight.” She nods politely, still looking away. “Listen,” I say. “Can I ask you if there’s a café in the museum. You know, coffee, something to eat.”
“Yes, there is a place. It is easy for one to find, right above us on the next estage. They have coffee but not so much food, I am afraid.”
“I’ll eat whatever they’ve got. So, I… Thanks so much for your, ah, ah, your very interesting information about the art of your country. I know my artist friends back home will be very interested in the, um, uuh, the way you do things here.”
“It is no problem. I hope that your journey home will be a good one and that you will have good memories of our country.”
“I’m sure I shall,” I say with a little bow that I hope is appropriate.
Apparently shaking hands is not appropriate. She turns away and heads toward a painting of a cow. I sweep my eyes over the walls, their trees, kids, bold striders into the future, and cows. I give a final shudder to the clown, and head for the next floor.
The café is a dim brown cube with a few tiny tables and two small windows glowering from the back. Somebody’s pathetic idea of Moderne. Behind the counter the attendant stands in front of an enormous eagle-winged espresso machine in tarnished copper and nickel. On the counter is no doubt the only available food, a plate with three pale buns. I order an espresso and all the buns and take them to the farthest table in the room, sit down with my back to the door.
The buns have raw dough in the middle and the coffee tastes like despair. I look at my watch. Sweet Jesus, eight hours to go. Endless, endless, endlessness. I wonder how long I can sit here, sipping this vile stuff and eating the cooked bits of the buns and staring at the wall and trying not to think, before I go utterly mad. I take a few deep breaths to see if I can in some measure calm down. Finally out of desperation I decide to try and use the time to do some composing in my head, look for ideas. I’m supposed to be writing a piece for harpsichord and viola da gamba, which I stupidly offered to compose, for no fee, for a couple who are nominally friends of mine. It’s the last thing in the world I need to be doing with my time. Not to mention doing it for people who think they’re better friends of mine than they actually are. But right now I’ve got as they say time on my hands, time to kill, nothing but time.
To my surprise I find myself getting into it. I play a game of thinking up things for the gamba as if it were harpsichord music, things for the harpsichord as if for gamba. Do this all the time, leap out of the rut by imagining something impossible. I’m sort of famous for that. After I don’t know how much time trying over ideas in my head I half-hear the espresso machine huffing and chuffing across the room. Then the scrape of a chair at the next table and the rattle of a cup and saucer. Annoyed at the interruption, I look over to find, even more annoyingly, the girl from downstairs.
She gives me a shy smile. “You remember me?” she says. “Your friend from the clown painting?”
“Certainly, of course.”
“I did not know if you will still be here, but I felt a little bad about our conversation.”
“Bad? How so?”
“Oh, you know. You appeared a little confuse or even upset. I think perhaps I did not provide you enough with explanation so that you would understand properly about our artists.” She sits back in her chair, gives me a friendly smile, asks what country I’m from. I tell her. “I thought so,” she says.
“Really. How can you tell?”
“The shoes. All the people from your country have the shoes like this.”
I lift my right foot and examine it curiously. “No, really. Do many people from my country visit this place?”
“Not so many, but some do. The people here say that they can tell one of you far away because of the shoes.”
At that I actually laugh out loud. So does she. Her face improves notably with laughter. In another time and another place, sweetheart, I think.
“You know,” she is saying, ”I have always wished to visit your country. It is not so easy to get permission to do so, but it can be done if you know right people. I hear your cities are very big and very clean and rich.”
“Big yes, sometimes clean, rich not always.”
“I think I would like to work in a bank in your country. You can learn about business and make a lot of money, no?”
My turn to shrug. I’ll let her talk. I’m enjoying the sound of her voice, its offbeat rhythms and exotic vowels.
“I am not greedy, you understand,” she goes on. “That is not good thing to be in our country. But if I obtained some money I could come back home and better myself, you know? Are there okay places to live in your country, if you have not any money yet?”
“Well, you should come with a month’s rent anyway,” I advise. “The best thing is to have friends you can stay with at first.”
“Oh no, I know of no one in your country. I would be completely, what do you say, naive? No, that is not right word. But I would love to go there.” Her face darkens. “Only I must ask one thing.”
“Ask away, my dear.” Watch it, I think. You’re getting carried away. You have one goal and one only, to get the holy fuck out of here.
“I want to ask if they torture people in your country.”
“What? I… No! Not at all! Jesus, where did you get such an idea? Does your government say we do?”
She traces her finger across a spill of coffee on the table, her face gloomy. “No, not exactly do they say that. You know I, I think about torture a lot. In some countries, the things they do to a girl, it is terrible.”
“It is indeed. Does that mean they torture people here?”
“Oh no, naturally not. This is good country, free country. Only the last government, before this one, they did do torture, yes. Many people suffered, I am sorry to tell you.”
“Did he present regime take over by force?”
“Yes, I am sorry to tell you also. Five years ago. But not so many people got killed as last time there was revolution. That was very bad revolution.” Suddenly she brightens. “Oh, I remember now, you say you fly tonight. Do you have transportation to the airport?”
“No. I suppose I’ll have to take a bus.”
“Do you know which buses to take?” I shake my head. She pulls a stub of pencil from her purse and picks up a napkin. “I show you then. Is maybe a little complicated, the airport is a way from here. But there is bus from almost front of your house.” Sitting down close next to me, she leans over and begins to draw a network of lines, with notation of several transfers I am to make, carefully writing out the bus numbers so I can recognize them, ending with a square containing a little airplane and an exclamation point. It is a painfully charming drawing. I can smell her breath, sweet with a bitter undertone of cigarette. To my astonishment I feel my groin stirring.
When she has finished she picks up the napkin with a smile and extends it to me. “Here it is, Warren. From your front door to the airport, you have plenty of time. May I call you Warren?”
“Sure,” I say.
Then I realize I haven’t told her my name or where I’m staying or anything about my flight.
A chill begins at the base of my spine and leaps up to my brain. It is followed by a wave of heat that brings sweat springing to my forehead.
She chatters on. “If I could make some money in your country I could improve myself here. I could buy a nice violin. I am musician, you know, I play the violin.”
I am having trouble finding breath to speak. “Tell me,” I rasp, “what’s your name?”
She gives me her sweet waif smile, picking up her espresso cup. “That is not important,” she says over the cup. I am looking intently into her eyes as she sips. “What is it you?” she asks. “Do you like my face?”
“Were you in the orchestra that played my piece last night? Was that you in the second violins?”
“Oh, maybe, maybe not,” she says playfully, tilting her head to the side. “That is not so important either. Do you mind I ask you something?”
I’m in a fog. Like we’re normal people, like we’re a boy and a girl, like we’re hitting it off. Only my mouth is dry and I can hardly find breath to speak. “Yeah. Sure. Ask me.”
“I like you. I think you are so handsome. Do you like me?”
“Sure. Yes, I like you.”
“I do not want you get the wrong idea. I am not prostitute if that is maybe what you are thinking. I am not that kind of a girl. This does not concern money. I only, you know, like you and would like to hear if you like me also.”
Words are tolling in my head like the beating of a gong. Have congress with this person. Terminate the life of this person. I can’t talk around it anymore.
“It’s you. You’re the one the Court sent.”
She gives a shy laugh and looks down at the table. “Maybe, but also not so important.”
“This is impossible. I was… How did you find me?”
She laughs again. “Find you? We never lost you!”
It’s hard to catch a breath. I shake my head in the latest disbelief, this time the big final disbelief. “You say everything’s not important. Not fucking important. I’d say it’s pretty goddamned important. I’d say it’s important and ridiculous, important and tragically stupid, surreally important and… and…”
She looks at me earnestly with her big gray eyes. “Oh, do not be angry please, Warren. When they told me what I must do, I was unsure as I had been before, but they told me you are good looking, and they were correct.” A big smile. “You are so handsome as a man at your age. I am so happy to have meet you and to help you.”
Help me, I’m thinking. God almighty, help me. She doesn’t know. She’s done this before. Done it because somebody ordered her to. She knows about the congress, not about the terminate. Of course she doesn’t know about the terminate. Oh shit, old buddy. Oh Christ, oh hell, oh fuck, boyo, what are you going to do now?
“What?” I say. She has been talking.
“I am sorry, I ask how long is it before you have the plane? Is it seven hours from now?”
I look at my watch. It is exactly seven hours until the plane takes off.
She’s shy and apologetic in everything she does, but she is relentless. “Okay, look, you have lots of time, no? I tell you, Warren, I would really like to see where it is you are staying. Why we not go back to your place, your nice little room in the attic, and we can see what may happen?”
My head is down, I’m looking at the scratches that cover the greasy café table, the initials cut into the surface, the obscene doodles scrawled all over it. “Do I have any choice?” I say.
I feel her taking my elbow, pulling me to my feet.
“Come, Warren, let us go to your attic.”
“I don’t have any choice, do I?” I say.
“Come,” she says. “You will be glad.”
As she leads me out I ask, “Don’t we have to pay?”
“It is taken care of.”
As we emerge from the museum a black car pulls up to the curb. At the wheel is the man who drove me to the concert last night. During the drive back to the house she looks at me now and then, beaming. I avoid her eyes and say nothing. Now and then the driver gives me a sideward glance in the rearview mirror. My head and stomach are churning. Sooner than I would have thought we arrive at the house. She playfully pulls me out of the car. I reel on the sidewalk, then sink to my knees and vomit on the concrete.
“Oh, Warren, poor boy,” she says, patting me on the back. “I am so sorry. Poor boy. There now, you feel better, no? My poor boy.” When I stand up and wipe my mouth on the back of my sleeve, she puts her arm through mine and steers me to the door. “Come, we will go and get some water. I will give you a tablet that I have that will make you okay.” I look back to the black car sitting at the curb, engine running, the driver staring straight ahead.
In the kitchen she fishes a packet of medicine out of her purse, extracts a tablet, fills a glass at the sink and hands them to me with an air of concern. As I swallow the pill and sip the water she runs her hand through my hair. “You have such nice hair,” she says. “This is not usual with men of your age.” A burst of music and thumping erupts from upstairs.
“Oh no,” she says, looking up at the ceiling. “This is not right. There are not supposed to be people up there. Let us go up and see what is going on. Do your stomach feel better?”
Actually it does. I nod.
She leads me up the two flights of stairs to the attic, the music mounting as we climb. She opens the door of my room to find a party in progress, as many as ten babbling students crammed into the small space, an ancient phonograph on the table, a couple dancing in the middle, rubbing against each other.
“Excuse me,” she says, pushing me back into the hall. “Excuse me, I must talk with these people.”
She closes the door. Standing stupidly alone in the hall I hear shouts in the room, the words of which of course I don’t understand, though it’s clear the kids aren’t wanting to budge. The idea of making a run for it crosses my mind, the first actual thought I’ve had since we left the museum. Then another phrase tolls in my head: Failure to act or any attempt to excape will be treated with full severity of law. Then another fleeting attempt at hope, Maybe if the kids won’t leave it won’t happen, there will be no… no congress. But that’s ridiculous. If it’s gone this far they won’t be deterred by students having a party. I feel like I’m about to puke again.
She comes out the door looking angry, pulling the door shut behind her. “They do not wish to leave. But they tell me there is another bedroom here, over at that door. And look!” She waves an open and nearly full bottle of wine. “They give us this! We have our own party, no?”
I follow her across the hall and into the other bedroom. Here there is a dusty overstuffed armchair chair next to a small chipped table, a bed draped in a sheet. She closes the door and pushes me back into the chair. Putting her purse and the bottle of wine on the table, she takes off her sneakers, revealing white socks, and sits on my lap. “It is okay?” she says.
“Yeah, sure, it’s okay,” I say.
“I am not too heavy for you?”
“Of course not.” She toys with my hair. Her flannel shirt smells delicately perfumed. Under the ugly jeans her backside feels taut and trim. She picks up the wine and drinks from the bottle. “Now you must drink, you see,” she says, handing it to me. “It is custom.” I take a long pull, surprised that it sits well on my stomach, and hand the bottle back to her. She tilts it up, hands it back. “Each time I drink, you must reply. It is custom.” She giggles. “You must not stop till I stop.”
With the first draft of wine my mind begins to race. She’s a shy young second violinist. What was her crime, that she has to die for? Worse, is there no crime, only an arbitrary decree of some sadistic regime to demonstrate their power of life and death. Or simply to amuse themselves.
As I take another pull of wine I begin to imagine her as a frail sad violin solo, obliterated by brass and percussion. I imagine, when I’m back home, writing an elegy for this sweet tragic child, an elegy for her and for all victims of all decrees of all regimes. But if I write her elegy and confess the reason for it, will I expose my guilt? Can I be held accountable for her death? Or do I have to add her to my list of sins unconfessed and unabsolved? That long, sorry list. What’s going to happen to her maybe not the worst item on it. My next pull of wine finishes the bottle.
We both jump. There are heavy footsteps running up the stairs. Outside in the hall we hear a burst of music as the door of the other bedroom is flung open. A male voice barks loud, authoritative commands, threats. Immediately the music stops, we hear a bustle of frightened youthful voices, the sound of the partiers racing down the stairs. There is a sharp knock on our door, and the voice snaps three words.
She sighs, rises from my lap and extends her hands to pull me from the chair. “Okay, our room is ready now. Our bower, I think you call it.”
When we emerge in the hall there is nobody around. I have to do it, I’m thinking as we go in and she closes the door. I have to do it. God help me, I think I have to do it. But there’s one thing you can’t control, you sons of bitches of the Court. There is no way in heaven or earth I can get it up for this. There will be no congress, you bastards. Just the termination.
She has lain down on the bed, looking up at me with liquid eyes and a small sad smile. She reaches her arms toward me. “It is time,” she says. “We have waited so long. I want for you. Come here, my poor boy.”
I lie down on top of her. She feels terribly frail and small. As I kiss her she begins to pant, to squirm liquidly under me, to give little moans. In a moment, pushing me aside, she stands up and hastily removes her clothes, the old plaid shirt and too-big jeans. She is not wearing a bra. Only with her panties does she hesitate, look at me with sudden uncertainty. Then she leans over and pulls them down her legs.
“Do you like me?” she says shyly as she stands up and kicks away the panties.
“Very much, of course.” It’s the only thing I can think to say. I am surprised to see that her body is not frail but sinewy, athletic, with thin hips and low girlish breasts.
“I am happy,” she says, smiling awkwardly. “Now you.”
She leans over and begins unbuttoning my shirt. I shake my head and brush her hand away, unbutton the shirt myself, slip off my shoes, rise to pull my pants and underwear down together.
We contemplate my disappointing flaccidness. “I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s so strange, all this, and I have trouble sometimes.”
“I understand,” she murmurs. “It is no problem.” Gently she places her hands on my shoulders, pushes me back down to the bed. “But let me try, my poor boy, let me see what I can do to help you.”
As I lie back she kneels between my thighs in an attitude of prayer, her clasped hands over my groin, then begins patiently to stroke and massage me. When to my amazement I begin to stir, I hear her breathing quicken again as she expertly kisses and licks. When I am fully ready she presses me to turn lengthwise on the bed and leaps on top, reaching between her legs to pull me inside her. I am devoured in warm wetness.
Then she is bucking on me, moaning, finally giving sharp cries. When her time is near she leans over, squeezing me hard inside, and gasps into my ear, “You first! You first!” I am first, she a second after, with a scream that turns into a dying wail. She collapses onto me, her gasping slowly receding. I feel warm tears on my chest.
In the tumult of my thoughts at that moment I remember she does not understand what is to come next, what I am ordered to do. Strangulation profferred. What kind of betrayal will it be in her last thoughts, when I do it to her?
My heart is galloping. I can’t tell if she hears it. After some moments, when I have shrunk and slipped out of her, she sighs and slides off me, settling onto her back and looking at me silently with glistening eyes. Both arms rest above her head, her neck is pale and naked. I turn on my side and stare back into her eyes, searching for an answer, anything. Finding nothing I reach up and stroke her hair. For a moment she does not speak or move, only sighs and looks into my eyes as I stroke her hair, stroke her shoulders, slip my fingers down her chest to her hips and thighs, into the moist void between.
“Now,” she whispers. “Now what must we do?”
I can’t suppress a sob. She looks at me silently, concerned, not moving. Trembling, I rise to my knees above her. I rest one hand lightly on her chest, the other curled in a fist beside her neck. I can smell her on my hands. “I’m sorry,” I say.
“I know,” she whispers. “I know what you feel. I am glad.”
I put my hands around her neck and squeeze. Her body and her face contort with the pain, but she does not resist. She closes her eyes. “I’m sorry,” I’m saying as I straddle her trembling body and tighten my hands around her windpipe. “I’m so terribly sorry.”
I feel a piercing pain in my back. I cry out, release her and fall heavily onto the bed. In her left hand I see a silver dagger, covered with my blood.
I am fighting for breath. I feel strength draining from me faster than I ever could have imagined.
She watches me, her liquid eyes full of pity. She lays the dagger on the table next to the bed and gets up on her knees beside me.
“Go to sleep now,” she says quietly. “It is nearly over.”
“Who are you?” I gasp.
“That is not important,” she murmurs. She strokes my brow.
“Did you truly not guess why you were brought here?” she asks earnestly.
“No. For god’s sake you…”
“Good. I am glad you did not. That is the way they hope it will be. It is the way it should be.”
“Why?” Her face is blurred in my vision now. I shift my body and gasp in a flash of pain. I feel the sheets wet and sticky beneath me.
“Do not move,” she says, putting her hand lightly on my chest. “It is better if you do not move, the pain is worse. Only relax. It is nearly over.”
“B-b-but wh- wh–?” I can only gasp out words now.
“It was felt to be more humane,” she says, sitting back on her heels and looking down at me from what seems an immense distance. “They had tried other ways, then they came to this way, and I also think it is best. It gives you a chance, a last chance.”
“Who, who…” Soon I will not be able to talk anymore. Only gasp, and that not for long.
“It is not important,” she says. She leans over me and begins to stroke my brow again, with great tenderness. “I want to tell you that you did well. So many men, they break down and run and have to be hunted. Others, the worst, they enjoy it. They strut and laugh, it turns them on when we are in bed. But you felt sadness for me. That was good. That is the way they intended it. That is the way it is supposed to be.”
“Do not try to talk now. You see, at first they used very beautiful girls, but then they realized, for the men, it became too much a matter of sex. And too many tried to flee with the women, though they were told it would not succeed and it never did.” She smiled her shy smile. “So they began using girls like me, not so pretty, so the men had the chance to feel sadness and pity, if it was in them to feel those things.”
She looks into my eyes, her eyes soft but her face firm. She runs her fingers over my cheek, presses them briefly into my neck to feel my pulse. “You cannot talk anymore, can you? That is good. Let it go. You have done well. I congratulate you. Whatever things you have done up to this day, up to this moment, whatever it was that brought you to me, I want to tell you that I give you absolution and I admire you.”
Everything is like a light receding into a tunnel, slipping away into darkness and cold. With the last of the light I feel her lips pressing into mine. The sweetest kiss