A fiction by Kyle Jarrard as yet unenjoyed by the world at large due to irrelevancy of the piece.
We arrived just after dawn at the gate with its high stone arch. Long before, we’d gone off paved road onto gravel. Old oaks, black arms reaching up into the pale sky, lined the way like sentinels. Row after row of vine filled the fields, their passage hypnotizing. The October harvests I’d joined as a youth, broken backbone, frozen fingers, gigantic meals and all, rose sharply intact from my memory as I gazed out. There would be sweet odors in the air from the distilleries, surely. For the first time in countless months, I felt totally at ease as the chauffeur put his shoulder to the great teak doors, which slowly, majestically, began to open …
Our host had uncorked more cognac almost immediately upon our departure from the Paris area, so that by the city of Tours, a quick two hours later, we were all blissful. Inhibitions about starting off on an adventure with strangers fell to the wayside. The conversation was of a general kind, touching on the current, and disquieting, train of events in the East, on the poor prospects in the medium-term for the West, and such. No questions were raised about the sojourn, as agreed.
The only thing I did mention in this regard was that the whole thing was beginning to sound strikingly like it might turn into a Poe plot. But just as the comment had left my mouth, I regretted it. Most Poe tales ended badly, at the expense of some key character. I specifically thought of bricks and mortar.
Pinkerton only responded, “A genius. We are not.”
The remark was so devastatingly apt that we remained silent for the next several dozen kilometers as we rode the rolling hills toward Poitiers. A high wind out of the West bucked the limo then and again. There was no moon.
I yawned. Miss Cho yawned.
Pinkerton said, “Yes, it has been a long day. I hope you will forgive me if I am a bit short. I’ve come all the way from London this morning and Karachi the day before.”
“Pakistan,” said Miss Cho.
“A despicable place.”
“On business?” I asked.
“No, not at all. A misguided vacation. Complete mistake. As most vacations are. Whoever needed to go see Pakistan? Even Alexander turned around up in there somewhere and went home to Macedonia.”
“Oh how sad,” Miss Cho said.
“But true,” I said. “Pinkerton’s right. You only get abuse and waste your money. Better to have a place all your own to go to. Southern Morocco? Southern Anywhere? Bad hotels and bad beaches. Who needs it.”
She did not seem to appreciate my cynicism and fell to rooting about in her handbag, doubtless checking to be sure she hadn’t lost her dough.
“Indeed,” Pinkerton said. “I’m sure you will find the Logis as perfect as I did the first time I saw it.”
Miss Cho proceeded to freshen up her face, relayering some orange and pink talcs across her high cheeks, smearing a deep purple cream on her lips with the tip of her pinky, and ratting up her hair into a conical form that, when it came to the open-for-comment moment, we complimented graciously even though it tipped precariously to one side, whorelike and cheap.
I was surprised that Pinkerton did not say anything outright. He was, after all, paying for her. If she were my hire, I’d certainly require a minimum of elegance. Such an attitude has often landed me in hot water with the more liberated ladies, but I’ve always been that way, will never change. We are what we are.
Still, she had a look, and Pinkerton obviously had an eye, and I tried hard not to appear uncomfortable at some of the snatches of foreplay they performed under my nose. But, hell, for a hundred thousand, I’d watch them if that was what he wanted me to do.
He made a telephone call, apparently to his English home, and gave lengthy instructions to a staff member or other concerning his return the next day.
He offered to let us use the phone. But Miss Cho was already dozing, and I had no one to call, a fact I now believe he had already surmised.
We went long stretches without talking. I admonished myself to relax, and taking a cue from Pinkerton’s deepening slump toward Miss Cho, leaned toward the opposite corner, clutching my empty brandy glass. He didn’t sleep but stared up at the dim red overhead light. The rustle of Miss Cho’s shopping bags on the floor and the distant roar of the road were the only sounds.
Shortly after Poitiers, the driver left the turnpike.
Pinkerton said, “I prefer the old Roman roads through here.”
Ignorant of such things, I said nothing. I had fifty thousand already just for listening, so he could say whatever he wanted. I wasn’t required to comment.
A half-hour later we were gliding in and out of villages, first lights already shining in windows, church bells clanging, yellow tractor lights bouncing deep in foggy fields. I tried hard to imagine just how rude these people’s existence might be, but failed, knowing nothing about them, not caring. Even then and there, the gorgeous tapestry of rural romanticism laid out before me, I couldn’t help but think of them all like so many mice nibbling away at my income with their gargantuan subsidies and tax breaks and myriad forms of institutionalized relief. A pretty enough at dawn, yes, but give me a city and all its accouterments anytime. It is time we buried Zola’s spoiled earth once and for all and got on with the business of being a modern nation.
I promptly congratulated myself on this sensible, and right, conclusion, and dozed off.
He woke both of us at the entrance to the drive with a soft shake of the shoulder. I came to easily, while Miss Cho was cranky and groaned. This did not appear to bother him at all, and as the main doors opened onto the yard, he exclaimed, “Oh my god, look at the grass!”
He was marveling more than complaining, and flung open my door, clambered past and ran out ahead into the stuff, weeds and brambles and whatnot grown chest-high. He darted back and forth in it, the headlights catching his passage as the driver slowly advanced through it to the house. Stalks and limbs and all manner of wild flower heads collapsed and crunched beneath the car as if it were a combine. Miss Cho held her coat collar shut and looked frightened. We could hear Pinkerton whooping up ahead. The chauffeur chuckled gently.
“Are you all right?” I asked her.
“Of course,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Sensing a problem, the driver, a Pakistani, looked back, smiled politely. “There is nothing to fear, ma’am. He’s just a lonely old man. Believe me.”
Miss Cho said, “Did I ask your opinion?”
The driver shrugged, turned around. I had to hand it to her: Do these people have no shame? Why do they think it is automatic that we need their opinions?
“Keep an eye on the lady,” I told him, threw open the door and leaped out into the jungle.
“Where are you going?” she said.
I looked back into the red cocoon. “You’ll be all right. Read a magazine.”
She spit some Japanese and the Pakistani giggled.
“Over here!” Pinkerton called. “Over here!”
I found him on a badly decayed rock wall. One wrong move and he would have tumbled over. I clambered up with him.
“She all right?” he asked.
“Good for her,” he said. “Look.”
The river had risen out of its banks and spilled across the fields for as far as you could see. All was one giant gold and black scene with the sun burning deep in the rear as if a lone fire. A plane of fog hung low in a stand of poplars, which stretched away in perfect lines, each trunk cutting a V in the current’s strong pull. Not a sound.
“We made it just in time,” Pinkerton said. He began to walk along the wall. “We can go all the way around the property like this. Six kilometers.”
He moved quickly, agilely. He spoke of fishing with his uncle, catching mammoth brochettes and basketfuls of gardons and anguilles, of boating, learning to godiller standing up with a single oar, even all the way up to the new dam against the current, of nights out tramping the reedy banks drinking cheap wine with his brother until sunrise, falling in again and again, even in winter, of the dog they’d come across one summer night below the spillway, two heavy nodes of black flint tied to its neck.
This was his territory. Some long dormant past in France. My presence was far from necessary, really. So after a polite while, I stopped maneuvering along behind him and climbed down.
Let him go on, watched him thin out in the mist.
I headed back up to the manse.
It was far humbler than I had expected, and from its truncated look was clearly the remnant of a greater building that had long since disappeared. There were two floors, a stocky tower for the stairs, a dozen rooms at best. The building was grown over with ivy, still leafless, the trunks and branches gripping the fissured limestone walls as if to keep them from collapsing.
Clearly no one had lived there for many years, and yet it somehow seemed to be full of life, if only when Miss Cho poked her head through the growth around an upstairs window and cried, “You’d never believe it! The entire house is like a museum. As if the people had just walked out the door fifty years ago. Never come back.”
I felt like telling her off. What right did she have to be tramping around in there?
“Where is he?” she demanded.
I pointed. “Taking a walk. Come out of there.”
“I’m not staying in this place, that’s for sure.”
“You’ve been paid, just like me,” I said. “We’ll do what he says.”
“I don’t like your tone, Beaumont.”
“Maybe you don’t need the money. But I do. Now come out of there.”
She barked something. Then her head popped back inside. “Even the beds are still made!”
She was there for him. I couldn’t help thinking of the story I’d read as a young man about the husband who paid his wife a salary to sleep with him. This, though, was a veritable fortune for a single day. I silently congratulated her on her luck as I listened to her exploring the house, calling out the things she was finding, pots on the stove, dishes on the table, toys in the hall, graffiti and dust.
Then and again she belted out parts of Madama, and for a few long minutes I seriously considered going in, shutting the door and offering her my fifty thousand for five minutes. It was that time of the morning and Madama did that to me.
I am sure I would have proceeded to consummate that thing that I had not had the occasion to consummate in many years had I not noticed at the moment I was about to act that the Pakistani had left with the limo.
Unsure whether to be alarmed or not, I went to the front door. “Miss Cho?”
She was far in the back. “What is it now?”
“The car is gone.”
“Is it? Did he leave my packages? That little shit better have left my packages.”
I looked back across the grounds, crisscrossed with wide swaths cut by the car. Her things were there, grouped neatly together at the foot of a blue cedar.
“They’re safe,” I yelled.
“Why are you screaming?” She stumbled past me, as if liberated from a mine, batting off the filth. “Damn it, what a mess I am. Are you hungry? I brought coffee and croissants.”
Before I could answer, she caught the crook of my elbow and led us off through the undergrowth toward the tree.
Yet despite my tremendous urge to put myself in her control, to just let go and come what may, I pulled free after a few steps. “No.”
She halted, turned. “Relax, will you? You’re making me nervous.”
But I no longer felt like controlling myself, and pulled back hard. The crack of my fist and her cheek bone produced in me exactly that same tingling of the spine that you get when you hear very fine music. A surge of unequaled thrill and warmth. Down she went, out cold.
“Good shot,” he said.
I spun around. “She was asking for it.”
“No doubt. How’s the hand?”
I hadn’t noticed. I never notice that. It’s the receiving end that matters right after. But I looked at it. Not a scratch. I spread my fingers, gripped them.
“Well that’s good,” Pinkerton said.
We looked down at her on the dawn-wet ground.
“Took her right out,” he said.
“You’re not angry?”
“Angry? Son, it’s none of my business. I don’t even know her. And besides, if it had vexed me? What would you have a man of my age do about it? You jest.”
He had a point, even though I hadn’t thought of it that way. I hadn’t thought of anything, in fact. I’d simply acted. She’d begged for it — and got it. That was that.
“I do suppose,” he said, “we ought to help her up.”
“Sure,” I said.
She weighed nothing, and after a few steps I let go my half and let him carry her on inside.
“I’ll put her on a bed upstairs,” he said.
There was something bubbling that night that had been suppressed for a long, long time. I had to be careful not to let it, whatever it was, get the better of me. Had to stay in charge.
But, hell, for all I knew, he’d end up thanking me. He’d surely have an easier time with her now, thanks to me. If there was one thing a woman understood …
Returning, he said, “She’ll be fine.” Gave the back of my neck a friendly squeeze, went on ahead across the yard. “Let’s warm up with some coffee. It’s been a long night. Got a black eye for sure.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Sure you did, son. Why do you say that?”
“I didn’t. I mean, I don’t hit women.”
“Sure you do. You just did. But she’ll live. They’re very strong, you know.”
“Women. Don’t you see? She’s already slugged you back.”
He had a point. And I had behaved like a child, again. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, lord, none of that. Please. You’ll spoil the moment.”
“But I am.”
“And I know you aren’t, really. So skip the pretense. You’d been wanting to smack a woman like that for years. You finally did. Am I correct?”
He produced a thermos and a couple of Styrofoam cups from one of Miss Cho’s bags and poured.
I didn’t know what to say, and by not saying anything, admitted he was on target.
A high, screaming sound pierced the air with all the blood-chilling surprise of a low-flying fighter jet. We even ducked.
“I think Miss Cho’s awake,” Pinkerton said.
The jet made another pass, ground shook.
“I think you’d better get in there,” he said.
“You’re the one who dealt with her. You’re the one who goes in.”
He did not appear to be joking. To the contrary, his solemn regard carried an orthodox gravity. Again, I felt I had sinned, erred. Not only had I knocked out his hired date, I presumed I’d simultaneously done him some tremendous favor. Pinkerton was merely tolerating my behavior for now, for I could feel that something much larger than I could imagine was coming slowly into play and that I was to figure heavily in it. No, fairy tales are not true. No, people don’t just come up to you out of the blue and hand you a hundred thousand francs. No, there was some price to pay.
Doubtless poorly disguising my … what? I was not afraid. Head high, back arched inward, I marched within.
A light breeze pushed through the house, stirring up a silvery dust.
I turned this way and that, down one hall and then another, up flights of stairs, down others. Pinkerton had himself quite a place here, and the longer I wandered, as though in a tomb, the more it began to grow on me. That tingle you felt as a child when venturing through unknown territory on your own, that urge that always made you want to stop and urinate on the spot, that drive that pushed you on when you had no idea what awaited you on the far side, propelled me onward. Feeble light struggled in, now ahead, now behind, an unsure guide. I tried to follow the wind, to keep my face to it and emerge in due time on the far side of the building. But turn a corner, take a step or down, and the air was dead, or moaning far away. Put an ear to the plaster wall and you heard it flowing past on the other side. Take another turn, mount another flight and she’d hit you hard, stinging your face.
Then and again a brightly colored bird would zip by and be gone.
It was no use calling out. That wasn’t what this was about.
I resolved to simply keep climbing, that whenever I would come to a downward staircase I would not take it and head back the way I’d come. This proved easy for a while, and alternate routes heading upward being plentiful, I soon found myself happily contemplating a triumphant breakout onto the roof into the sun of … midday?
Yes, and there I would call down to Pinkerton, relaxing far below, his miss recovered at his side in the shade of the blue spruce, and the episode would come to a quick end. A ladder would be heaved upright, a gardener would hold it steady, down I’d go.
Again and again I wondered why it was that men lust to put other men in such situations. Is it perhaps because a man never accepts the existence of anyone else? Who knows. I took my leak, there where I had to, clomped on. It was ceasing to be even mildly interesting.
“All right, Pinkerton,” I said firmly, scouring the gray glow ahead at the next T in a hall. “That’s enough of this now.”
At the crunch of a turning shoe, I spun around. But only the same grayness hung there.
“Which way,” I said.
I was talking more to myself than calling out.
Was there even a reason to keep going? Was there any reason I couldn’t just hold out on them? Make them come in and find me if they wanted it to be over? How long would they wait? How long could I wait?
Coming to no conclusions, I sat down anyway. In a darkish zone between the two glowing ends of that particular hall. Satisfied with my easy decision. Wanting no more of their game. And resolved not to give it another thought, to focus my mind elsewhere, anywhere else, and on anything else, any topic at all but the one at hand. Not to count the number of yellow parakeets that zipped by, or the number of green ones or red ones, not to make any frequency guesses or strive to come up with any plausible reason that they would be flying through that house in such numbers and at lightning speed as if all on some strange mission that we humans could never possibly fathom, never having ever really believed in each other’s existence and ploughing through life, as through Pinkerton’s palace, with no regard for anything but oneself.
Sitting there, I could only hate myself for who I was. And who was I? I was nobody. Definitely and simply, nobody. Just a nobody everyone would forget about in no time.
A nobody so slow and self-absorbed that long after they came in, found him, ushered him out into the evening light, he still had to be told and told again.
“You’ve been on the other side since your apartment fire, ace,” said Pinkerton. “Just like Miss Cho since her bankruptcy, the final blow.”
He handed me a cold bottle of beer.
“Why’d you bring me here?” I asked. “Why the money and all? And …”
I stopped myself.
He nodded approvingly. “See? You’re learning. Just like Miss Cho. She learned. Didn’t you, dear?”
“That’s right, Ben,” she said kindly. “I learned. I got over myself. I took the step. Now the past matters not. There is only the here and now.”
Some saliva drained from the corner of her mouth. Pinkerton dabbed it, said, “That’s a dear. So you see, Beaumont? See what our little spell in the country has done for us? Gotten us in touch with our new selves.”
He handed each of us the other half of our promised payment. “As I promised … ”
Without hesitation, we handed back the envelopes. In fact, we handed back the original money, too.
He took a long look at the point over my head, then the one over Miss Cho’s head. His lips moved as if he were reciting a text.
“You’ve passed the Rubicon,” he said.
I took a swig of beer. The stuff never tasted so perfect.
A couple of swallows later, I let myself lie back on the grass. The stars were coming out.
“I still don’t feel dead, though.”
“Nobody does, at first,” said Pinkerton. “But you will. That’ll be the hard part. Kind of like a bad hangover.”
Miss Cho began to sing. “Amore, addio, addio! Piccolo amor! Va’ gioca, gioca.”
Pinkerton shoved her a beer. “Please.”
“Yeah, really,” I said.
She stood, took a stance, flung her high-heeled shoe straight for my face. I tried to duck. But you can only duck so far.