Thursday, April 18, 2013

18 apr 2013

Lawrence Sutin [Hamline University]

Hector spent the second world war years in Buenos Aires. He did not propose to volunteer himself for military or other service. It would have been a torture to adapt to any sort of schedule after nearly two decades of utmost freedom. And he was afraid of the war, of Hitler especially; he wanted to be far away from it and Argentina seemed that. As a sop to his conscience he arranged — through Barclay the solicitor in London — to forfeit his claim to £10,000 worth of British government bonds, a minor holding in his inheritance portfolio. This passive donation to the cause enabled Hector to listen to the speeches of Churchill on the BBC without shame. Within a few weeks of his arrival in the city, he struck up a friendship with three local men whom he met at a chic boulevard café. One was a cattleman with extensive land holdings to the south, one a composer whose work was being compared to that of Villa-Lobo and Milhaud, and one a marvelously funny fool of a waiter. This waiter could magically impersonate the voices of Hitler and Churchill — his pièce de résistance was a screaming match which he carried on both in belligerent mock-German and sententious mock-English with expository asides in Spanish and French; he had the gift of making no sense in any language, the waiter would say of himself. One night, seated separately at the bar, the cattleman, the composer, and Hector found themselves laughing in unison at the waiter’s antics. Having revealed their shared contempt for the politics of the world, the three men went on to confide to each other the adventures of their lives over further drinks. It became an all but nightly ritual. Hector, the cattleman, and the composer each possessed personal fortunes. The waiter, who was poor, came over the course of several months to rely upon the generous tips of the three men to fund a lifestyle far beyond his accustomed means — one that included French wines, Cuban cigars, a used Fiat coupe, and woman who had always loved the waiter and loved him not the less now that he bestowed upon them jewelry and perfume. Hector, the cattleman, and the composer were always served the strongest drinks — the barman took care of that for a cut of their gratuities. One evening, after several rounds, and with the waiter already off for the night, the cattleman nodded pointedly to the composer who then proceeded to explain to Hector that there was a private gentlemen’s club in the city, to which both the composer and the cattleman belonged, where a form of dueling, technically illegal, was enacted now and then, as the occasion arose, and that tonight was such an occasion. Would Hector like to attend as their special guest? They felt they knew him well enough by now to rely upon his discretion. Hector accepted immediately; it seemed to him that he was being invited to bypas the limitations of a foreign tourist and to witness firsthand the degraded customs of the wealthy underbelly of Buenos Aires without risk to himself. It might all make for a tidbit or two for his book. The composer and the cattleman — insisting that hiring a cab would only create a trail for busybodies — led the way on foot through dark side streets to a forgotten brick edifice at the outskirts of the city. After passing down two flights of unlit stairs, they reached the entrance to a columned cellar once used for the storage of wine and produce. The cellar was now thickly carpeted, with tapestried walls and rows of leather armchairs along three of its sides to accommodate an audience of roughly twenty. An elderly gentleman of evident means — dressed in black tails, with an emerald tiepin, and on his fingers three rings encrusted with gems and intricate symbols signifying Hector knew not what — spoke briefly with Hector’s two friends and then, turning to Hector, eyed him as if to say, I will remember you for good or ill, then beckoned him to proceed. The composer, the cattleman, and Hector sat side by side. The lights were dimmed at ten P.M. precisely, and two hooded attendants commenced the proceedings by wheeling forth a large rack to which a gagged and blindfolded man was bound. This man, Hector soon discerned, was the waiter. He turned to the composer and the cattleman who briefly gestured as if to say it was a surprise to them as well, but what was one to do? One of the hooded attendants then called forth the aggrieved challenger who had demanded the duel. This proved to be a member of the club whose son had been befriended and then dishonored by the waiter — a pretender to wealth and style who was in fact cosmopolite mulatto Jewish homosexual scum. The nature of the dishonor to the son was not specified. The aggrieved challenger explained that he had arranged for the waiter, on leaving his shift this very evening, to be kidnapped and brought here by force for a duel that offered better than the waiter deserved — the impersonal justice of fate. A crack marksman, the club pistol champion, whose dispassion as to the outcome of the duel had been attested to by personal oath, would, at a distance of twenty paces, fire six shots at the one-inch target rim painted closely around the contours of the waiter’s head, which had been firmly affixed in place so that no panicked movements by the waiter could affect the outcome. If the marksman were accurate six times in succession, the waiter would have the sound of shots ringing in his head for the rest of his life, a fit punishment in itself, and one that would dissuade him from ever mentioning the incident. The marksman was sworn to take all six shots, regardless of the number of inaccuracies along the way. Theoretically, the waiter could be shot in the head six times, although that had never occurred; the record for a challenged party was three, and the marksman employed on that occasion had never again been asked by the club to perform this service, which the club provided to its long-time members so as to assure that they would never be forced to endure the bumbling delays of even properly bribed Buenos Aires policement. Hector wondered if there was anything he could do for his friend the waiter, whose body, should he perish, would surely disappear, with nary a word ever spoken of the duel thereafter. Could he save the waiter if he tried? On the contrary, he would be killed by angry club members, among whom would be the composer and the cattleman, whose eyes were now fixed on the seething face of the mute waiter. Hector had yearned to explore the underworld and here he was already its minion. Perhaps the waiter would live and they would all laugh at this over drinks tomorrow night, slap the waiter on the back and chide him for keeping such secrets as to the breadth of his erotic conquests. The first shot rang through the cellar and out from the waiter’s gagged mouth came a vomited scream. A hole in the target rim showed clearly as the rack was backlit for that very purpose. Six accurate shots would create a corona of light around the waiter’s head, and Hector recalled the days when he too had been a barman in The Midshipman’s Watch waiting on old fools like his benefactor Muir. Had Hector not become a benefactor to the waiter? And yet he would sit and do nothing. Shot two. A silence. A shudder throughout the room. Hector sank into his chair and saw a second hole of light. The waiter, after some seconds, groaned. Then shot three — the marksman was free to time and pace his shots as he liked, but it seemed to Hector that the groan had been taken by the marksman as a kind of affront and so the third shot was quick just to shock the waiter back into silence. It missed both the target rim and the waiter’s head, which must have been a rare sort of miss in such duels, for there were coughs and snorts from some of the audience members. The sound that now dominated the cellar room was the hard breathing of the marksman. The waiter was so weakened by this point that only the ropes that bound him head to foot kept him from dropping to the floor. Shot four found the painted rim and created a topmost star for the corona. Hector was beginning once more to enjoy the experience. The marksman truly had no animus toward the waiter. Two more accurate shots, or two more shots wide, and the waiter would live and Hector would help him to get away from Buenos Aires and its crazy rich men who killed those whom their sons chose to love. Shot five drew blood from the waiter’s left temple and the waiter choked on his gag as sobbing took hold of his body. Shot six went straight to the waiter’s heart. The body flinched and shook as if it would wring free of the ropes and then it slackened so completely that the ropes seemed fooled and nearly lost their hold. There was knowing laughter in the room, not only from the ones who had snorted and coughed just moments before, but from all the club members, including the cattleman and the composer. The loquacious introduction of the duel, its sequence of shots, all had been intended, Hector now understood, to intensify the torture of the victim as he went to his preordained death. Hector left in the company of the cattleman and the composer, wondering how the three of them could ever speak to each other again, given their complicity in the murder of their friend. But strangely it went easily. They all agreed that a return to their café would be in order, as drinks would calm their nerves and drinks at that locale would pay suitable homage to their friend. It seemed to Hector insanity — a precipitous return to the scene of the crime — and yet, as the highest magistrates were members of the very private club in which the duel occurred, there would be no investigations. The waiter was no more, it was only that. But as they approached the café, Hector made an excuse, he said he felt ill. He thought to himself let them think of me what they like. He said he was weak and homeward bound and would see them soon, very soon at the café. Profuse thanks for the experience of which he would never speak as — this went unsaid — he didn’t want to die like the waiter. Hector didn’t so much as dare to write of it in his own book — only these three lines were entered that night as he smoked the American Lucky Strikes that were widely sold in Buenos Aires: “The war is everywhere. It was folly to hide. Leave Buenos Aires tomorrow and never linger anywhere again.”

1 comment:

  1. Is this fiction? Does he not believe in paragraphs either?

    It is folly to hide.