No Road to Inverness
(A Case of Mistaken Identity)
by Gaither Stewart
In order to understand the world, one must turn away from it on occasion.
Via Nazionale. The taxi battles its way up the steep avenue in the precarious right lane reserved for public vehicles. Blinding sunlight; afternoon traffic intense; their one lane in pitiful opposition to the mass of cars and buses careening chaotically downhill over the rest of the wide cobblestone avenue, ignoring the tight line of buses, taxis and official cars creeping warily against the current. During any interruption in the flow, a flood of downhill vehicles darts into the puny uphill lane and with difficulty returns to the downhill track. Their drivers scream uninterrupted curses at the traffic pirates speeding straight at them: “Mortacci tua figlio di puttana porca madonna che testa di cazzo.” Catch up with the bus ahead and dart back into its trail of black fumes. From behind them infuriated bus drivers accelerate and flash headlights pale in the afternoon sunshine and vainly honk their high decibel horns.
“The usual bedlam,” Alessandro comments.
“It has always been this way,” Magda answers.
“And it always will be,” Alessandro adds.
Alessandro views the anarchic tumult distractedly. Magda couldn’t care less. It’s the taxi driver’s reality … his problem, not theirs. They have plenty of time. Magda is holding tight in her hand their tickets for a reserved sleeping compartment. They only have to get to the station, find their train and board. Traveling in good style, Alex thinks. Paris bound! Different from sleeping in the corridor on their youthful train trip to Hamburg. Romantic, the idea of fifteen-hours sealed away in a first-class compartment, drinking, smoking and love-making if it strikes their fancy.
Blinding sun, pirate traffic, taxi curses, tickets ready. He is on his way. Paris bound. No turning back now. Magda must wonder why they are sending them to Paris like this. Alex doesn’t know the answer either. Donato and Emiliano had made the proposal off-handedly. He’d said ‘yes’ without hesitation, uninterested in details. Dangerous to know too much. He needed the 3,000 euros. Four days in Paris and all this luxury at their expense. Deliver the letters and carry some little packages back to Rome.
Two kids on an all-paid holiday. Light a cigarette, hand the pack over the seat to the driver, relax, at ease with the world. Paris bound.
Magda singing something in German under her breath and drumming on her handbag, a bored expression on her face. “Just wait till you see the metro in Paris,” she says. “In this fucking town you can’t even get to the station without some kind of trauma. What kind of a world capital is this?”
Alex doesn’t react. What does he care? Traffic indifferent. A theoretical consideration. He doesn’t even drive.
“What about one of those beers?” he says. Lackadaisical. Takes a can of Heineken’s from her bag. “Remind me to get some wine at the station. This beer won’t last even to Pisa.”
Stay clean, Donato had said. Good advice but we’re going to enjoy this trip anyway. Once locked in our compartment, we can do anything.
Pile out of the ragged back seat. Driver still swearing about his profession in this city of figli di puttana. Fucked by traffic. Fucked by fuel costs. Fucked by rules. Alex shrugs, leans back inside the car and pushes the beer can under his seat, reaches over the seat and takes back his pack of cigarettes, gives the cursing driver a five euro tip. Grazie, signore! Step into Termini Station’s marble world. Fascist heredity. Zig-zag through a jungle of green, blue and yellow sleeping bags on the pastel marble floors against white marble walls. Bearded travelers, African illegals and local winos living in the same brotherly promiscuity as they do in the nearby parks and in the palm-shaded gardens on Piazza della Repubblica, and inside the Roman ruins behind the baths and under cranes on the construction sites for the new subway station. Grouped sleeping bags, backpacks and multi-colored spreads, wine bottles and food remains mark specific but spontaneous communities.
“One big hotel, the station. Inviting. Pleasant memories of my youth.”
“You should know,” says Magda.
In reality it’s all beguiling, he knows. It conceals chaos. Seething chaos. Mirrors life of the whole Mediterranean world. Its forum. Know the Mediterranean world and you know the entire world, one history teacher had said. Termini is more than a rail station. It’s a historic site. International trains, high speed national trains and airport trains, buses for the South, subway and bus line hub, huge taxi station, shops of the two level shopping mall competing unsuccessfully with hundreds of illegal vendors of every conceivable product, lottery and money changer booths, restaurants and cafés, public baths and toilets, police station, post office, freight center, travel agencies, car rentals, bookstores, newspaper kiosks. A market place for every conceivable activity of the entire Mediterranean world: drugs and arms traffic, espionage, terrorism, counterfeit money, contraband. Not only travelers but a meeting place for spies and terrorists, criminals and black marketers, drug pushers and drug addicts, fences and con-men, female and male prostitutes and their clients, gypsies, beggars, tramps, idlers, musicians and singers, magicians, fire-eaters and pushers of hotels and restaurants. A state within the state. An autonomous society largely unknown to mainline Rome society and no one had noticed its birth and growth except units of a harried police.
Alessandro feels at ease. A home away from home. He leads the way through the greatest souk west of Istanbul. Examine the departures board. The Palatino, track 2, 18:48. No problem. Ostentatiously Magda displays their tickets at the control gate. Inside the departure-arrival area Alex buys a two-liter fiasco of Chianti from a mobile drinks stand. Curiously he watches Magda lingering around the newspaper kiosk, hoping to steal something. The sly old man senses her intention and stands just next to her. Alex laughs at her exasperation and her shame when she pays for a couple of magazines. An almost respectable couple boards the first-class sleeping compartment car.
The big clock on the platform clicks to 18:48. Their train lurches forward. The familiar station at the end of Viale Trastevere near the Flea Market flashes past. The old station and transfer point for local commuter trains looks forlorn from the windows of the great international Palatino Express bound for Paris.
“God bless you for this wonderful idea,” Magda says, her hand inching up his thigh. They are ensconced in their compartment. Alex had given the car conductor their passports and a big tip just as Donato had told him to do. From the compartment door he had winked conspiratorially at the youngish conductor, indicating with his thumb Magda and the spread of drinks. They wouldn’t be bothered the whole night. Now they watch contentedly the ugly images sweeping past: side tracks, cisterns, power lines, dirty buildings and minor stations they’ve never heard of.
“I can’t wait to see Paris again,” Magda says. “I felt freer there than anyplace I’ve ever been. A strange feeling. I was drunk on all the activity.”
“And what else?”
“What? What else what?”
“What else were you drunk on?”
“How should I know? They said, ‘here swallow this.’ I did.”
“Sounds like mushrooms. No wonder you felt free. What did you see?”
“Images and mostly a street called Barbès.”
“What’s that mean?
“Means nothing. Just the area I was in. I never left it.”
That Magda, he thinks. She’ll try anything. No one knows what goes inside her pretty head. Pretty? Is it pretty? Maybe not. Maybe nothing goes on there. But no, it’s something. We’re all unique in one way or another. Something about her missing father. Maybe she fucked her father. That would explain many things if she did. This girl survives on surrogates. Actually both their Rome childhoods seem tragic. Both still trying to grow up. I would bet she fucked her father! Or he, her. That’s part of the problem. But the worst part is that he fucked her and then left … and with another woman. She often says ‘since he abandoned me.’ I’ve never really put two and two together. I wonder which is harder for her to bear. Fucked by her father or abandoned by her father. The answer seems obvious. No wonder she’ll swallow anything you offer her, from mushroom pills to tequila mixed with mescal. And that she began fucking me and anybody else when she was thirteen.
They start with wine and beer. Indiscriminately. Magda has a good supply of downers. Though he’d told her not to bring anything because of possible border controls, neither of them is particularly concerned. They would anyway finish the pills before that.
“By that time we’ll be sleeping, I hope,” he says.
“Do you really think so? I’m not going to sleep the whole night,” she says. “I want to see the entire trip.”
He knows her ardor will cool off after drink and love. Reminds him of when he was eight or nine driving beside his father from Rome to Amsterdam. He was going to stand beside him the whole trip. By the time they reached Florence, he was already sleeping curled up on the passenger seat.
“I’m hungry,” Magda says.
“We’ll get the conductor to bring us some trays later.”
The sky in the West is red when they reach the sea. Cerveteri is rich in brilliant red hues and reflections from the huge ball of the sinking sun. They are in bliss, though aware that like everything in their lives it is temporary and fleeting. Alex gazes benignly at the white stucco houses with red tile roofs in the resort town of Santa Marinella.
“I came up here once with a friend,” he begins. “You remember Hary. It was for a big party at his parents’ house,” he recounts dreamily, not really interested in his own words. “I didn’t know one single person there, so I sat in the garden under some thick trees and got stoned out of my mind. I don’t think I said a single word to anyone during all the hours we were there, not even to Hary. He carried me out to his father’s car. He was very embarrassed, he told me later. We were only about sixteen.”
“So what,” Magda says. “What’s that got to do with it?”
“What’s what got to do with it?”
“That you were only sixteen. Lot’s of things happen when you’re sixteen. Like getting stoned and being carried to the car?”
Alex shrugs. Nothing disturbs this girl.
The night is short and dream-like. Alex talks long after Magda falls asleep. They’re somewhere in France, he assumes. In any case no one has disturbed them for border controls, the reason for the first-class compartment and the good tip to the conductor. Then, suddenly, he too is waking from his position on the floor. He grins sleepily and wags his finger toward the unoccupied top bunk. He is surprised to find that he is fully dressed. So there was no love-making, he thinks, rising on an elbow and listening to a heated discussion among, it seems, other conductors gathered in the adjacent compartment. The words ‘trade union’ and complaints about the capo treno, the train master, filter through the thin divider wall. Magda begins snoring, sleeping on her back, her left arm stretched alongside her head, like a baby sleeps, he thinks. He pulls down her arm and she stops snoring immediately. He raises it like a lever and she snorts and begins snoring again. He pulls it back down. She stops. Amazing. An automaton. Must mean something important about the human being. After a while he turns on the small lamp with a round steel shade and cracks the window screen just in time to see the station of “Beaune” flash past. Mist is rising from the plain between Lyon and Paris. It is eight o’clock when they stop in Dijon. Two hours or so to Paris, he guesses. Despite the drinks until late night and a downer or two, he feels refreshed … and ready.
“Let’s split,” Alex says, turning his back on the church of Sacré Coeur. “Smacks too much of early Mussolini. All that whiteness. We’re not here to waste time on stuff like this.” He turns back and frowns up at the white walls and rounded domes he had examined earlier. “The city is beautiful from this hill, like at the top of the Panoramica in Rome, but I still can’t bear this place. Too many tourism buses, too many people everywhere.”
“Come along,” Magda says, pulling him behind the church. “Let’s go down the back way. Oh, fuck! It’s not even rush hour here and look at the mob.” The light morning mist had just lifted when wheezing and breathless they had come up the last flight of the staircase from Pigalle below. Now the late morning air is still humid. Clouds are forming over the city at their feet. A crisp breeze wafts across the Butte of Montmartre.
“What a delusion,” Alex complains. “Now I know what it is. It reminds me of the Victor Emanuel Monument. Never liked that white place. We can cross out this place on our list.” Now that his mission has been carried out he only wants to see the Paris he knows from literature … and contrary to good sense, he knows, compare it to Rome. The Latin Quarter and the Café de Flore, the Paris of Hemingway, Henry Miller, Remarque, Shakespeare and Company and also the Père Lachaise cemetery. But secretly he wants to go up and down this hill a few times. That above all. No better way to get a feeling for a place than climbing its hills … the more times the better. “And we’ve got to get a bottle of Calvados,” he adds eagerly.
“Are you so disappointed?” Magda asks, a touch of irony in her tone.
“Not yet,” he answers laconically. “But, I haven’t felt the presence of any ghosts yet, I …”
“Ghosts? What kind of ghosts?”
“I thought I would meet them at every turn … in this ghost-infested city. It’s funny, you know, ghosts are much closer in Rome.”
“Man, what the fuck are you talking about? We’re in Paris. The city of light, And he’s looking for ghosts. Go figure!”
“This is supposed to be a black magic capital but can you imagine black magic here? In Rome there are witches and sorcerers all over the place. Dolls full of needles and spell-laden pillows. Why, I feel ghosts just sitting under the Giordano Bruno monument on the Campo. But look at those phony stalls,” he says pointing at the art shops behind Sacré Coeur. Magic still on his mind, they round the corner onto Place du Tertre.
“This is better than ….”
He stops short when he sees what is going on there. Then, “Hey, Mag, here’s the place,” he says, peering into a corner café through a wall-to-wall plate glass window.
The screen-like picture window looks out onto the square filled with painters and caricaturists and Japanese and European and American tourists. “and here we are back on Piazza Navona,” Alex mutters. “How quickly time passes … yet the years when I used to nearly live there seem like a dream now.”
Magda, sipping from the bottle of Calvados with her head nearly under the table, does not answer.
Alex ignores her lack of attention, takes the bottle from her and ostentatiously pours a generous portion into a glass. Let the waiters see him. They wouldn’t really care anyway that they brought their own bottle. Magda is always so … so rule-abiding.
“It’s always better to watch a scene like this from inside a safe observation point,” he says. “We’re witnesses but we’re also somehow cut off from the event.” He drinks off the Calvados and is sipping foamy beer when he suddenly pauses, listens. “Hey, listen to that, Mag! That’s Mahler! Imagine that. In a bar on Place du Tertre, Mahler.
“You don’t say!” Magda retorts sarcastically. “I detest but also love that traditional part of you.” In that instant she understands why she separated from him many times in the past. She hates traditions, anything bourgeois, even more than the thought of her father abandoning her.
He is surprised to hear that familiar music from behind the bar, in such a setting, at the top of Montmartre. He listens for a moment to the contralto. Music his mother and sisters considered almost sacred. Steam rises from the coffee machine. Clattering and laughing and furniture scraping on floors sound from the kitchen. They always played Mahler at home. The Third and the Fifth too. Part of their conspiracy against him. Yeah, conspiracy. Exclaiming ecstatically over Mahler just to exclude him the barbarian. He had never admitted it to them but he still likes that Eighth Symphony. In a contorted way his love for the Eighth is his revenge. It thrills him and makes him secretly proud of his German side, the weird romantic part. But he would never tell Magda that either. He hums along with the chorus and, his chin high and his unseeing eyes fixed on the big window, ostentatiously directs the orchestra to show off to her.
He pretends not to hear Magda ordering more Calvados like some literary tourist. They haven’t eaten anything yet and she’s already high. The sun has come out of the mist and the gathering clouds and the square suddenly turn bright. In the wake of the sun a new wave of tourists darts in and out among the art stands and easels as if in a race against the arriving clouds. The caricaturists too seem to be working in exaggeratedly quick, jerky movements. In reality, he tells himself, I am registering the life around me in this moment. Nothing escapes my observer’s eye. I see every detail, note every nuance of events inside me and outside me. Out of the corner of his relentless eye, he sees Magda, her mouth open, her mouth pronouncing l’addition, s’il vous plait. Magda paying the bill. Magda again drinking Calvados and finishing her beer. Not a drop of alcohol left behind. Scorched earth. Their policy. He stops directing the orchestra and carefully finishes his drinks, too. Just as she did. They stand up carefully, slowly, their movements deliberate and precise. They march in slow motion across Place du Tertre and down the main street of Montmartre. They are alone, remote and distant up on their heights from which they can observe it all.
He deserts his game, laughs toward Magda and stops to look into an art shop: “I was able to fly for a few minutes,” he explains.
He is surprised when she answers: “Yes, I saw you up there.” She takes his hand nearly affectionately. They walk fast down the hill, stumbling and slipping and sliding, down, down, down the long curving hill of Rue Lepic.
They get four hotdogs from a street vendor at the foot of Rue Lepic and sit at a table at the Café Tabac adjacent to the Moulin Rouge. Monika orders beers. They agree that Paris beer is very delicious. Eating around the edges of the extra long hotdogs so as not to squeeze the mustard out of the pocket roll, they eye the tourists examining with mistrust the billboard for the new show: Big Show and 1/2 bottle Champagne, Euro 125.
“I wonder what kind of champagne they serve,” Alex says.
“Mostly water I would bet,” Magda says. “Still, the show is good.”
Sirens whine from the direction of Place Clichy and a line of trucks and cars and fire trucks race past, followed by police cars and ambulances. Smoke is rising from behind the roofs just beyond Place Pigalle where they had started the morning. Huge black clouds belch skywards, interrupted by streaks of flames like lightning against the approaching storm.
“Let’s go back up to the top,” Alex proposes. “Sounds like war up in the heights.”
Rivulets of water gurgle downhill, in the gutters and on the sidewalks in front of the markets on Rue Lepic. “Hurry, hurry, schnell, schnell,” Alex keeps repeating, as they jump nimbly, it seems, from stone to stone, dodging shoppers and small three-wheeled delivery trucks and the cars creeping down the hill.
“Why? Why? What’s the rush?” Magda gasps, trying to recapture her breath.
“It has to go fast, very fast, or we’ll never get to Inverness,” Alex insists.
“Inverness, what the fuck’s that? A place or a person?”
“Never mind. Just fast,” he repeats.
Strong fish smells. Water running down from trays of oysters and crabs, and unfamiliar mollusks, chickens turning on spits, shop windows overflowing with spreads of salads and roast beef, crepes and tarts and cream-topped cakes. As they climb past Le Moulin de la Galette, Alex wheezes and mumbles, “Never get to Inverness never get to Inverness.”
Rue des Norvins is familiar. On the way to Inverness.
He can finally relax when he sees their table behind the big plate window facing Place du Tertre is still free. Smoke, drink and rest. The Calvados is good on top of the hotdogs. Silver drops of condensed mist is running down the sides of the great window against which the painters and caricaturists and ogling Japanese tourists seem unreal. In the silence arriving from outside, their movements are awkward and exaggerated.
He shushes Magda and listens. “Are they still playing Mahler?”
“No, no Mahler. You only dreamed it.”
“But not Inverness!”
“Well, anyway!” Inverness. The mountain. Mahler, he’d directed it. Promiscuous Magda and her lover-father. Calvados and beer. Hotdogs and Rue Lepic.
Alessandro, who everybody calls Alex, decides to reveal the story to Magda who everybody considers a tramp.
“I don’t believe we ever got to Inverness that time,” he begins. “Got pretty close though. The train ride from London went on and on. Too long. Hary said ‘fuck it. Let’s get off.’ What could I do? He was paying for the tickets and everything else so we got off at the next station. The middle of nowhere. Just the station and a square with two hotels. And a mountain just next to it. It was all foggy and mysterious and Scottish. So we climbed the mountain. At the top we sat down and smoked a few joints. Then we came back down and ate a sandwich at one of the hotels, then went back up the mountain again and smoked some more joints. We came back down and ate another snack. Then back up. Up and down that mountain. Eating and drinking and smoking joints. We were full of food and tired and high as kites when it was suddenly evening and this band of bagpipers marched past. Coming from nowhere, going nowhere. For no reason at all. Just marching by. For the joy of marching and bagpiping. So we marched around the square with them. Hary bought them drinks but they refused to climb the mountain with us. Too late, they said. Hary must have spent a fortune on me in those days … and on that band too. We were always smoking and eating and traveling around someplace with the Interrail passes he bought us. All the shit we went through together. He was always pretty straight, but mad as a hatter which redeemed him. Wanted to go to the ‘top of Europe’ he called it to see the Loch Ness monster … and also drink in a distillery the famous Inverness malt whisky. Still, I don’t believe we ever got there.”
Smoke from their cigarettes swirl around them and merge somewhere above with the steam rising from the espresso machine and the invisible fumes from the Calvados on their table. Moisture on the windows condenses and runs down the pane in slow twisting streams. They are tired from racing up and down Montmartre, from the Butte to the Moulin Rouge, Moulin Rouge to the Butte, time and again, and are soaked from the intermittent showers. The Japanese and Germans milling around the Franco-Afro-Asian artists and among the hucksters intensify the sensation of chaos and confusion in his head and his fixation on getting to Inverness. His mental lapses seem longer and deeper. When he returns to himself he grasps at the reality of the table and the glass in front of him. Time and place had never seemed so elusive, always just out of reach. The hill, he knows, the mountain, the Butte, is out there someplace. Up and down. Up and down. The Calvados. The delicious French beer. More hot dogs. But Hary? Where is Hary? Would they never get to Inverness? The sudden loud hissing startles him and he observes a cloud of steam rise toward the ceiling. The espresso machine. That old locomotive. A police band marches through la place. Throngs of Japanese line the streets. All of us together now, he thinks, up to the top of the mountain where a surprise awaits. Raindrops splatter on the great window pane. The marching band plays and the Japanese wave and cheer. They all march around la place. Calvados and beer flow. They light up. Who cares? Donato will never know. Hary is paying anyway.
A heavy weight presses on his shoulder, irritating and disturbing his reverie. From behind the pressure a voice whispers into his ear. He thinks he hears: “Show us your documents.” Documents? What documents? Who are they anyway? Documents control on the mountain? Up here near Inverness? Another voice, farther away, repeats documents in French. They are sitting on either side of him. Youngish men. Blue raincoats. Alex struggles back ... and realizes he is stoned.
“Your passports, s’il vous plait.”
“Alex feels in his pockets. Passport?
“In the hotel,” Magda says from far away, though her voice is clear and familiar. “Yes, in the hotel,” she echoes herself.
Black coffee warms his sinking chin. Coffee fumes. Cigarette fumes. Steam off the windows. Pressure on his arms. “Look at me when you talk,” the first voice says. “or we’ll go someplace where you will talk clearly.
The great picture window projects strange yet vaguely familiar scenes from a kaleidoscopic exterior, multi-colored figures leaping across the crowded stage. Black raincoats and umbrellas and pale blue sarongs and Bermudas dance nimbly across his vision. Jagged rivulets form contorted designs on the pane. The hot coffee trickles down his chin and winds its way under his collar and seeps around his chicken neck.
Suddenly they are sitting almost leisurely around a table for four. “A lump of sugar, Magda?” he nearly asks.
“What were you doing at the Hyperion language school?” the tough one asks again. The man’s hand lies splayed on the table edge alongside a half-filled glass of beer. The biggest hand Alex has ever seen. He stares at it, transfixed. That hand! At least eight inches wide. The thumb is the size of Alex’s wrist. A hand to break bones. A hand of brute force. Of power.
“Why did you go to the Hyperion Ecole de Langues?”
Alex concentrates on his instructions. Police? Yes. So maybe they were followed all the time. Maybe they searched their hotel room. Thank God, the little packages were in Magda’s pack, now safely stored in the café coat check. How? he wondered. Why? In Rome they had told him what to say. Donato said it might happen.
“You mean the language school? Why? What’s the difference?” He sees the hand twitch. Don’t ask who they are, he warns himself. Don’t act suspicious. Be open. Straightforward.
“I want to learn some French, I’m looking for a cheap school.”
“French? Why do you want to learn French?” Big hand smiles.
“Yeah. Of course, French. Very important today.” He smiles broadly, stupidly … suddenly sober, his adrenaline working fast. “So I can say more than merci and bonjour madame and l’addition s’il vous plait.”
“But why that school?”
“Why? I just saw the sign there along the river. We went in and asked for information. That’s all.”
“Who did you see there?”
“Who? I don’t know. Some woman who told us that courses have already begun.”
Blue raincoats know something. But what? His visit to the language school was not enough reason for following us. No one but Donato and Emiliano in Rome, himself and the Italian at the Hyperion know about the correspondence he had delivered. What else could they have seen except him and Magda racing like mad up and down Montmartre? He doesn’t relish the idea of a French jail. He knows they are brutal. Worse than Italian police. If he had been beaten senseless by humane but careless Rome cops, what would the French do to him? He has a deep fear of being defenseless in the hands of an all-powerful torturer. Nothing more terrible for him. Helpless in their hands … and what hands! They can do anything they like to you, to your body. The rack! Hot irons, knives, the interrogation chair like in films with iron spikes in your back and arms, electric nodes up your ass, around your testicles, ripped fingernails, drilled teeth, water boards, the Orwellian rat in your face, Chinese tortures. Unbearable. How could one person inflict such horrors on another? They had to be beasts. He already feels like a prisoner. Oh God, get me back to Italy. If it has to be jail, then an Italian one.
He tries to ignore those hands. What other purpose could they serve? How could a woman or a child bear the touch of such hands? Are they capable of caresses? No. Those are the hands of a torturer. In that instant the hand closes over his, hot, fat and sweaty. A sensation of the most total disgust he has ever experienced sweeps over him. He stares at Magda from a great distance. She looks back at him blankly, her eyes unseeing. The two men stare at him in silence, ignoring Magda. Crooked streams of rain water rush down the window pane. The sky had turned dark, the square ominous. The tourists have vanished. The painters and hucksters are packing away their easels and canvases and drawings and folding their canvas chairs. A light rain is falling. A chill sweeps over him. ‘And I come crashing through,’ an inner voice phrase passes across his lips, absurdly, insanely. He has never understood what those words mean. ‘Crashing through? Through what? To what?’ Maybe it wasn’t Mahler at all earlier. The Beatles are singing “ … for tomorrow it may rain, so I’ll follow the sun.” He hums along and beats out a slow rhythm with the back of his hand.
“What was that all about?” Magda asks. He looks up at her and realizes they are alone. Out on the square a wiry Indian is holding a torch high over his head tilted backwards. Rain water is running down his chest and stomach. Only Alex and a lone waiter standing in the doorway of the restaurant on the opposite corner even notice when the fire-eater thrusts the flame into his gaping mouth.
Alex turns abruptly back toward the room when the espresso machine hisses and white steam puffs toward the low ceiling and the refrain echoes through the nearly empty café.
“I think it was a case of mistaken identity,” he says and smiles at Magda.
Gaither Stewart writes fiction and journalism. He is a senior editor for the American online publications, The Greanville Post and Cyrano's Journal Today. His works are published in venues throughout the world. His latest novel, The Fifth Sun and a collection of political essays, Recollection of Things Learned--Remembering Socialism are published by Punto Press, New York. He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy.