Leopold Magnus, 57, had started a new life, done so twice in fact, and was about to start again, and the enormity of it, the unfairness, stabbed at him. He was a former detainee (six years in camps and prisons for calling on his government publicly to honor international agreements on human rights) and for a time, after his release under the pressure of world opinion, he had been something of a celebrity in certain circles. But he had long ago lost that status, given it up in exhaustion, and was now trying to make himself over into an ordinary, day-to-day human. He wished to be like everyone else, he said, oblivious, centered on himself and, he grieved, on his family, what was left of it.
Pushed into exile by a government glad to be rid of him, he had emigrated to the United States, where his wife had gone with his son and daughter to rally the support that won his freedom. Eight months after his arrival she was dead, and so was the son, crushed in their little Renault by a trailer truck in the frenzy of traffic that raced round and round the nation’s capital. And now, abruptly—how to explain all this?—his daughter, all that remained to him, had flown off to the other side of the continent.
“Please, Papa, understand.” She stood before him in her faded levis and country western blouse with its rows of shiny buttons and pulled at her long fingers that used to tickle him under the arms and behind the ears. “It’s not you I want to get rid of, it’s—I don’t know what it is—I’m suffocating, I need air.”
“What does that mean? Well, maybe I know. I still smell of what they did to me, where I was, and what happened to me, death, death.”
“Papa, don’t play the violin at me, it won’t help. I want to go where I can become myself—” impatiently tossing her long hair.
“A country full of young people cutting off all connections in order to be themselves. Do you think the self is a stone lying somewhere in the desert? Play the violin at you! It’s a new kind of cruelty you have learned.”
Her wet gaze turned on him. “You should know what I mean.”
He looked away from the black olive eyes. They were his wife’s eyes.
He was alone, more alone than he ever had been in his cell. They corresponded across the continent, spoke occasionally over the telephone. He sent her money—he had a position as a teacher of comparative literature (Cervantes, Manzoni, Voltaire, Dickens, Marquez) at a small college, a job his sponsors had found for him. Pretty soon the correspondence fell off, and the telephone conversations, and then she begged him not to send any more money, she wanted to manage on her own.
What was wrong, what had he done? He loved her, she had adored him; she used to sit for hours when she was only a child listening to him harangue his colleagues. Her silence hung on the long-distance line.
It was six months before she permitted him to come to rain-glistening San Francisco for a few days. She received his kiss on her forehead. She was taller than he was, slender, perhaps too bony, better looking than her mother had been though with the same long face and intense dark eyes and the large mouth, but with something new in the glance, an uneasiness—he had observed it in his students: for all their gregariousness, their backslapping and loud laughter, a desperate disconnectedness. Did she have friends, see men? Yes, she had friends, and he needn’t worry, she liked men, not women. But men were difficult, he ought to know.
“Papa, I have to survive in my own way.”
He looked at her sadly. “Rosalinda cara, we all depend on each other to survive.” They sat in a small restaurant near the water looking out at gray boats trailing ropes. A barefooted man walked up and down the deck of one of the boats smoking a cigarette and spitting, smoking, and spitting. “Rosalinda, I am at the stage of life where a man suddenly worries why is it hard to breathe, why is there a pain in his leg—”
Munching her lips stubbornly now as she used to when she was a child. “Papa, things are not the way they used to be—anywhere—” She stopped.
They sat looking out at the gray boats. He used to say I forbid it, and whatever it was was forbidden.
He tilted his head. “I have a legacy to pass on.”
“Do you believe in inheritances now? I don’t want an inheritance.”
“I am talking about my ideas. My feelings. Myself. I am your legacy. Do you mean to obliterate me? Back there they tried to obliterate me from history. To be sure that I would have no effect on their children. Is that what you wish to do? Without history you are without soul, without reality. A figure without the power to throw a shadow, incapable of seeing your image in the mirror.”
It was a blow to his heart such as he might have felt if it had been his wife who left him—he might have deserved it from her. Not from his daughter. She used to send little poems to him in his cell. He used to imagine her writing essays about him and in the future making a literature out of the struggle he had given himself to. Now she had become ordinary, full of the maudlin psychology of this place.
He flew back East, bitter and hollow-hearted. The chill of the camps and the jails descended on him; ancient guilts beat their wings against him. He sat alone in his room; alien smells pressed on him. Back there the language of his jailers had at least been his own language. Magnus stared down at the car-choked street. Now his lips curled, and an old slyness crept into his eyes. He had not withered away there, and he would not here.
Magnus was a short unhandsome man with small eyes, dark, attentive, in a small round head; steel-rimmed glasses; a bald forehead, stubby hands. Yet he was attractive to women, had always been, and not only to the plain-faced thick-hipped ones. Perhaps it was the way he talked, gestured, the way he ate, with gusto, a shine in the eyes. Maybe the self-assurance did it, the aura of bravado, of risk that he exuded, the suggestion of the illicit. Or a kind of eerie holiness that came from him, with the insinuation of ruthlessness underneath. He had carried authority in the old days at the university; helped install the new regime; headed committees. Others were more openly given to viciousness; his was a subtle hardness, more potent. They were drawn to him then, to the totalitarianism of character that masked as sturdiness, and later again when he turned and began to reveal a proneness for martyrdom. Was it the shine in the eyes, dulled now, that did it?
Magnus looked around and found a companion for himself, a young black woman, as it happened—appropriately so, he thought, a way of renewing old credentials and, it occurred to him, of ruffling the feathers of his newly Americanized daughter. Clever, too, of him to have met her in San Francisco at the student-teeming state university where she had managed a weekend conference that he attended during one of his visits to see Rosalinda. Within the year, drawing on his exile connections, he contrived to become a lecturer there and moved West with his three suits, his three dozen books and his small handful of snapshots of Gabriela, Mario, and Rosalind. Only one of the pictures, taken the week he arrived in the United States, included him with the awkward smile and unfocused gaze of a stranger.
Lucinda MacMahon was her name—”A black Scot,” she laughed. He nodded gravely; he knew the history of all the ravishments. She was 20 years younger than he was, ten or 12 years older than his daughter. What could she want with him? Escape, probably, relief from the puniness around her. Perhaps it was his history that pulled at her, the very thing that repelled his daughter. And he? What was he after? Sex, she matter-of-factly assumed, regally self-assured in her smooth-skinned blackness. She had been married, briefly. “Supposed to be the way to go,” she said. “Bad trip—” and laughed her flashing black woman’s laugh. About his prison-camp past she commented, “You did the business, didn’t you.” When, from time to time, he gave a lecture based on his experiences, laboring to overcome the smugness he saw in the faces of his audience by reminding them that the abominations he described were everywhere in one form or another and they, whether they admitted it or not, were implicated, he saw her sardonic smile ten or 12 rows back floating in the semidarkness. Was she mocking him? How could he, even with his six years of martyrdom, know the heart of the evil he talked about? But perhaps she intended it as the concurring amen of the co-believer; he sent her an answering smile, and found himself glancing over the rows in the hope that his daughter (notified by postcard) would also be there nodding affirmation. She was not.
On warm Sundays Lucinda took him to the beach, and he lay on gritty sand coddled by California sunshine, his disproportioned body stretched alongside her perfect figure. Her skin glowed with a rich darkness among the tanning bodies around them. A half-smile flickered around her mouth; her eyes, deep brown, looked out, he thought, with the shrewd hauteur of the peasant. She understood the evil under the surface of things—everyone else skimming and buzzing over it like gnats. In her airy apartment high over the bay she had received the weight of his body, easily, without fuss; took him as relief, he decided, from the large black men who reached deep into her, exhausting her and filling her with themselves; and from the preening white men, driving to demonstrate themselves in her, lashing her in their angry incapacity. He was surprised at his own apt performance, and grateful for her gentle show of gratification. Gabriela, too, had managed to display a considerate response when he came out of prison, even though she had other connections by then. Sometimes deep in a dream in his cell he had experienced release as if he were sweetly encaved in Gabriela as during their first years. He had expected that he would resort to self-stimulation in imprisonment, had tried, in fact, and failed. But occasionally after a day’s hard labor sawing pine trees, digging irrigation trenches, when his mind, stimulated by fatigue to hallucinogenic clarity, leaped with ideas— phrases for a memoir, sentences for the study of I Promessi Sposi that lay spread out on his desk when he was taken—he felt the old exhilarating pleasure of having lived a day of accomplishment; then as in his youth he was seized by an intense yearning for love; and that night in his sleep, dreaming of Gabriela, he was given the moist reward.
Magnus, propped on his elbows, stared over the western sea. Even before he was arrested Gabriela had had a lover, had needed to escape him. As Rosalinda did now. Later Gabriela braved prison to save him. But why did she wish to leave him? An escapade on his part? Notice that word: escapade. It was a small thing to him, not a betrayal. Her episode—her lover—was not a trivial matter to her. Magnus felt a pressure in the lungs. She had loved him. Why had she turned from him? For the same reasons that he had turned against the state? Suffocation. His daughter’s word.
He remembered her annoyances, her irritated glances. She wished that he knew about her so that she would be freed of the deceptiveness. He ought to have known. He knew everything else about her, managed her reading, directed her interests. “Yes, Leopold, yes,” she sighed, “I read it finally, you are right, I should have read it long ago.” His self-assurance, his obtuseness oppressed her. She loved him, still did, he was certain, while having her affair. And never ceased to feel, as always, allegiance to him, to his authority, to the ideals that drove him. No doubt of it. All of which, naturally, deepened her annoyance. If he loved her, as he said he did, why did he not understand? But if I had known what would I have done? Attacked her? Her lover? Wept? Left her? Her irritation persisted until I knew. Then she was sorry I knew. It meant that she would have to decide, take action one way or another. And then I was arrested, and she was trapped. How could she leave me after that? Did I get myself arrested in order to bind her?
Two days after she was crushed to death with Mario in the little automobile, a man’s voice came on the telephone: “Dr. Magnus”—a faltering tremor—”I’m sorry—” and hung up. A good voice. Perhaps she had taken another lover here in America while she worked to free her husband. Why not? She so badly needed something.
We sat at a small round sidewalk table. We chewed pommes frites. We sipped cloudy purplish and white drinks—cassis and something?—a sweet tingle on the front teeth. Gray moist air. A man pushing a handwagon. It must have been a seafront. Cobble stones. Yes, blue and red boats. Pebbles underfoot as we walked. She stopped suddenly and put her cheek against mine. She had full round cheeks then, easily polished by the cold. She was smiling. She loved me. A woman carrying groceries in a string bag came down the street. A metal sign rattled. Apothecary. In what language? We are sitting together on the sill of a store window. Books at our back behind the glass. Old books drab and colorless, not bright and shiny like the books here. Decaying. If you opened them they dropped flakes of their yellow pages. She is warm against me and weeping. Why is she weeping?
Sunbeams, sparkling through San Francisco haze, brushed Magnus; breezes reached him from Japan, China. Three boys and a girl, hair streaked orange and green, jogged through the sand; one of the boys wore linked safety pins in an earlobe; the twanging of guitars came loudly from the girl’s waist.
“Too much glooming about the past,” Lucinda chided him. “Smile. You’re in the land of the brave and the free, mister man. The big dream. Number one. Just take the cash and run.” She gave him her flashing grin. For all his experience, he was a child to be taught the world.
“And let the girl alone,” Lucinda counseled, “she doesn’t need you.”
It was impossible.
Magnus stood at the bottom of the hill where trolley cars came clanging down to their turn-around. He stood watching the small Italian restaurant with green shades and green awnings where his daughter worked as a waitress. Sharp odors reached him. She would emerge at 11 or 11:30, perhaps with one of the other waitresses. One night a young man with thick hair wearing a red sweater and tight pants came out with her and they walked for a while, laughing out loud, and then ran for one of the streetcars, and he lost them. Perhaps they went back to her room in the narrow old house on one of the high back streets. He had stood in surveillance there, too. (“Angels” they used to call them, the men and women in the black coats who did surveillance for the security police— always in black so that they would be noticed.) Crowds of tourists pushed past him toward the shops, brightly garlanded with lights, that filled the nooks and crannies of the old San Francisco warehouses.
He had been following her for a couple of weeks, to the restaurant, to a seedy school house where she attended classes on her evening off, to stores where she bought a sweater, a pair of shorts, a record. They had spoken from time to time on the telephone. The conversations were short, not unfriendly; there was, he realized, a wariness in her tone (he was reminded of telephone conversations in the old days, careful, monosyllabic, always aware of the third ear); but he detected also a tremor of remorse. She wanted to be decent; it was difficult for her. And he was not sure what he was after. A bitter passion had taken hold of him, he was terrified of losing her; finding a distraction for himself had not been enough—perhaps it was the presence on all sides of so many young people with their vacant eyes, menacing smiles; perhaps it was Lucinda pulling him into a sardonic Lotusland of forgetfulness, and guilt. If he lost his daughter he lost himself; what became of her was what became of him.
He followed her to the school and one night went in, and there it was listed on the bulletin board: The Dramatist’s Eye. Standing outside the classroom door opposite toilets that sent out an old familiar stench, he heard the instructor’s voice. “Take Büchner? Wedekind? How they surround the character? What you put down, what you give the actor, that’s only part of it, there’s more, plenty more—uh—subtext, something to find—.” A class for writers. Magnus felt a thumping in his blood. “The writer probes for what’s going on underneath—uh—where his character’s coming from—?” That was the reason; that was it; he’d known it all along; that was why she had separated herself from him; so that she could write about him—had set herself at a distance so that she could see him in the round.
Magnus walked springily down the star-strewn streets, his thoughts leaping with the things he had told her and had still to tell her. He remembered the letters, the little verses on lined paper that she used to send him (scrutinized by censors for secret codes). She was preparing herself; she would make his life whole again; perhaps she had already begun with sketches, dialogues, vignettes, entries in a journal. He smiled and wrote dialogue for her, fabricating whole scenes, filling out the protagonist’s character for her: idealistic, pragmatic, decisive and yet vacillating, yes, weak, harsh, guilty of—of much—but capable of emotion, of love, and of memory. Rosalinda, liebchen, listen, for two years the prisoner lived in a space seven paces long and four paces across. They made him suffer more, you understand, because he had been one of them. A spoonful of soup, a little porridge through the hole we called the bird feeder. Do you remember how angry you were at me when you understood that I had turned on the state and lost my status? You were a child, suddenly without friends and, worse, without importance. It took a little time to make you understand and then when you did they took me.
The first one to interrogate me was my former student. “Well, Professor Magnus, let us begin. On the fourth of September in a lecture, you said: “It is a matter of opinion. . . .” Please explain. Whose opinion?” “I am gratified,” I said, “that someone paid attention to my lectures. I had the impression everyone was asleep. Except you, of course. You never slept.” He didn’t smile; I don’t think he understood me. Rosalinda, querida, you will present it all, everything. The ugly—yes, ugly, I did much that was wrong—but especially the good for that is what mattered. And that is what you will continue. For me, for us. Here in this place.
Through her his life would be reinvented, and redeemed. Streetcars clanged on the hills.
“My daughter is becoming a playwright,” he announced to Lucinda, as if he had already been vindicated.
“Hey, that’s wonderful.” She patted his thigh. “She’ll be okay. You’ll see.”
“Yes.” It remained only to find ways to guide her.
He sat in Lucinda’s handsome apartment looking down on the fronts of restaurants and bars and delicatessens. Pearly gray patches of fog drifted in from the sea, floating over the roofs like ghost figures in a dream heavy with yearning.
Lucinda fixed drinks. She varied them from day to day: daiquiri, Rob Roy, gimlet, Harvey Wallbanger, martini, whiskey sour, an alphabet of strange names; and sometimes, if he wished it, plain schnapps, vodka, tequila with lime. He watched her set out crackers and cheese, nuts, little napkins, thick matched glasses; she was a child playacting, he thought, eager to be one of the grownups. She dressed for the afternoon ritual, too, with the fastidiousness of the very rich but with a special gift for color; she was the only woman he had ever seen who looked inviting in purple.
“You got rid of your background,” he risked, aware that he was dangerously close to embarking on one of his tutelary lectures.
He saw her eyes narrow but she laughed. “The country is full of people shaking off the dust of their background. Why not me?”
In this land it was not the state but the people who obliterated the past.
“My blackness is never out of your mind, is it?” She released her gleaming sardonic smile. “It’s all right. It’s never out of my mind either. I suppose I took you because I thought I was superior to you. An American, you know? And it made me feel good. Like I was helping a cripple across the street?”
She brought him a drink in a tall glass filled with cracked ice and slices of fruit. “Planters Punch.” She winked. “Daddy used to make em for massa boss.” She gave a cackling laugh and handed him cheese and crackers.
“Did I insult you?”
“No, no. no. A spade’s a spade, right?” Again her laugh. “No, it’s all right. You lay it right out. Why shouldn’t you? How else you going to save the world, make everybody equal if you don’t push, teach, disapprove, make them see the light? You paid your dues, why shouldn’t everyone else pay?”
She fell silent. She drank deeply from her glass, rose to give herself a refill, then stood over him, waiting, and took his for a refill.
She went off to the bathroom, and when she came back she sat on a small chair opposite him and stirred the ice in her drink with her finger.
“It’s nice about the girl,” she said.
“I would like you to meet her.”
He looked down at his drink. “You would have liked my wife. She would have liked you.”
“Really? Did she like the others? No, it was not a nice thing to say. You’re a strange man.” She lowered her head at him. “Take my advice, don’t lean on the girl. You’re a heavy-weight, you know? She might not have your ideas.”
“She’s very talented; she used to send me little poems.”
“That was nice.”
He felt suddenly animated. “Maybe she would come to dinner with us.”
He telephoned her the next day.
“Yes, Papa”—a thickness—gladness?—in her voice, and after a moment: could she bring her friend? “Of course.” He frowned at the instrument—the boy in the red sweater with the tight pants and thick hair.
They came on Friday. Lucinda vetoed a restaurant and insisted on preparing the dinner herself. She looked elegant in a chocolate dress, her ebony hair pulled back and coiled to one side. And Rosalinda arrived looking more handsome than he had realized; her long hair was black, too, and so were her eyes, brightly feverish tonight, Gabriela’s eyes. She placed a hot cheek against his, first one side, then the other, and squeezed his arm.
“Hello. I’m Lucinda.”
“This is Keith.”
Magnus stood gazing at her, stunned with happiness; she had come back to him, kissed him, squeezed his arm, smiling, smiling, beautiful in her tallness.
The young man moved forward. Magnus felt the moist handshake and saw that he was not the one who had come out of the restaurant with her.
They sat down. Lucinda put out little dishes of cheeses, spreads, pates, and while they sipped at drinks triumphantly carried in a platter of hot mushrooms stuffed with oyster concoction. “Too much, too much,” Magnus muttered, suddenly irritated. The young man was talking, the eyes wet, seeking approval. His eyes were set close, covered by tinted glasses. Clipped to the breast pocket of the shiny white shirt under his blue jacket Magnus counted four pens backed by a piece of cardboard with some sort of message printed on it. He worked in a small job printing and duplicating shop and planned to branch out on his own once he saved enough for a down payment on rental machines. “You get a thing off the ground and you can spread out, open a couple more shops, give it a special angle, you know?—like maybe booths where customers do their own cutting, stapling, something like that—” Rosalinda watched the pink lips, nodding as the words came out.
Magnus clicked his teeth. “I remember the poems you used to write,” he said to his daughter.
“Oh, Papa. Those silly little kid things.”
“You are a talented writer. I remember your letters.”
“Dinner,” Lucinda announced.
“You want to be a playwright,” Magnus insisted ignoring the savory odors of the chicken that Lucinda placed in front of him. “You shouldn’t let yourself be distracted.”
“Papa, what are you talking about?” She reached out laughing and touched his arm. “I never wrote plays.”
“I saw you at the school.”
“Please don’t let the food get cold,” Lucinda said.
Magnus looked down and cut into his chicken and watched the flow of the melted butter over the golden flesh.
“He happened to be walking—,” Lucinda said.
“I saw you go in, so I went in.”
He saw the color rise over her cheekbones; her upper lip was growing white the way Gabriela’s used to, and the eyes small and glittering.
“It was a class in play-writing,” he said. “Wedekind, Brecht, Lorca. Do you remember once I read you some poems of Lorca? ? De donde vienes, amor, mi nino? And Todas las tardes en Granada, todas las tardes se muere un nino. Also Brecht. Und wenn dann der kopf fallt sag ich: (clapping his hands) Hopplal!” He drank some of the white wine Lucinda had poured and wiped his lips.
“Do you follow me every day?”
“Rosalinda, zevuchka—” He raised a hand as if to reach toward her but let it drop.
“I go to sewing class,” she said, gazing at him. “Mondays. And bookkeeping on Thursdays. I’m going into business with Keith. We’re going to be married.”
“Just as soon as we have a little capital,” the boy said. “It doesn’t take much. Maybe fifteen hundred. We’re getting there.”
“Sounds like you got it all laid out,” Lucinda said.
“We’re going to have a business and a family and a house and a car. Isn’t that nice, Papa?” Her large eyes, Gabriela’s eyes, glittered at him. “Isn’t it?”
He sat plunged in gloom.
“Dessert,” Lucinda announced. “Shoofly pie. My mammy used to bake it for her lady who won first prize with it at her church bazaar every time.” Lucinda laughed letting her mouth drop wide so that the pink of her tongue seemed to flap.
When she said good night, Rosalinda patted her father’s shoulder. “It’s all right, Papa, it’s all right.”
The boy’s breadsoft palm pressed against his.
“She wanted you meet her boy. Wasn’t that nice?” Lucinda said.
Magnus banged his knuckles together. “Foolishness. I won’t let her do it.”
“You a boss man all right.”
He telephoned his daughter the next day. “Rosa.”
“I have to talk to you.”
“Papa, no. Please.” She hung up.
He found himself surveilling her house again, and her restaurant, hunched in a black raincoat, shifting from foot to foot. She came and stood in front of him.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Papa, I can’t help you. Let me alone.”
She stood looking down at the sidewalk.
“I have to talk to you, Rosa. I need to tell you—those years—. The things we were trying to do—. Yes, I knew what was going on—I was one of them—.”
She stared sullenly at the sidewalk. A truck began unloading crates of oranges.
“And your mother and me,” he said, supplicating, “she loved me, Rosa.”
He thought he saw her nod. And now, somehow, they are sitting in the window of a tiny restaurant. Coffee sends up little curls of steam between them.
“She took a lover. She needed to escape from me. You know all this. I didn’t blame her.” He rocked his head slowly. “We loved each other. We never stopped.”
Rosalinda looked down into the cup, stubborn, unwilling to listen, angry, he knows, because he has reached her heart. She has the burden of him, as Gabriela did. She is as vulnerable; he specializes in the vulnerable. He studies the long hair, the faded blue blouse. What is he, she, doing in this land? A place of laxative salesmen and overnight millionaires and gunlovers and shiny surfaces. Other countries permit surfaces to decay and discolor, bricks and stone to gather up the exhaust of human breath, the smoky color of revolution.
“Rosa, you are all that is left of me. Of us.”
She stiffens. The flush spreads along her cheekbones. “Don’t dramatize.”
“All right. I will simplify. She loved me. I loved her. We were young together in a great cause. Laughing, singing and marching, making speeches. Proud. Nobody against us except the enemy, the real enemy. You came, and Mario.” He paused. “By the time poor Mario came things were not so simple.”
“Papa, it’s got nothing to do with me any more.”
“Of course it has to do with you,” he said sharply. “What you are, who you are—.”
He saw her chew on her lips as she used to whenever he scolded her, the eyes focusing down, the hands clenched.
“Rosalinda, what will you be? What do you think about? Will you waste yourself on small things? Don’t let it happen. I hoped you—”
“Stop it. Please.” She pushed at the table as if to stand up but slumped instead.
They are sitting in silence. Gray light seeps down through the spaces between grey buildings. He had been a burden always to everyone. Starting with his parents. And later in the movement, goad, ideologue. And with Gabriela. Demanding, directing, requiring, always clear of vision, always without doubt.
“What do you want?” she demands.
What does he want? To be in her breath, in her bone.
“I remember your poems. In the kingdom of the spider he lies. Darkness sings on silver strings of forbidden skies.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“You wrote that, querida, for me. Your poems and letters came like spring flowers. I wanted to confess everything about myself to you. I wanted to tell you: “Rosa child, I was one of them, I am stained, I knew what we were doing. I thought if a few got hurt in order to make the world the way it should be, why not? Finally it was too much. I said no. So they decided to make me not exist. But I do exist in your poems, in your letters.”“
Her face was down and he saw that she was weeping. She dried her eyes and stood up. “Papa, that’s all gone. We are not back there, we are here.”
“Yes. Where they talk and talk about the great dream and what they mean is the great appetite. Rosalinda, do you think it is possible to disconnect yourself? Do you think that when I turned on them back there I turned on the things we believed in? You were a child but you understood everything. I need your memory.”
“Daddy, I can’t, it’s too late.”
“I am not Daddy, I am still Papa—”
She was walking up the hill. He followed but it was too steep to keep up with her. She turned off and disappeared and he stood, chest clogged, gazing down the crooked street.
A week after his arrival in America—why was he suddenly remembering this?—he walked with Gabriela through a supermarket, pushing a wire basket. Her eyes moved like beetles, shiny, as she plucked item after item from the over-loaded shelves. Rosalinda, in levis, and Mario, blowing pink gum bubbles, lingered in the aisles eyeing the other young people. And he was suddenly aware that saliva was gathering at the corners of his own mouth as he looked down at the slabs of beef trimmed in ivory fat, the mounds of cheeses, the rows of speckled fish, the bins and bins of fruits and vegetables, the countless shelves of breads, cookies, candies, soft drinks, the cases of ice creams, juices, whole dinners.
And now Magnus, pausing on the hill, was reminded also of a day long ago, of the emotion that filled him on the afternoon that he and Gabriela entered the little country cottage his government had allowed him in token of his loyalty and status. In the small living room, in golden autumn light, he had taken her to his chest and, moist-eyed, kissed her forehead whispering in self-congratulatory elation, Gabriela, Gabriela, as if he had at last achieved consummation.
Magnus stands leaning against the steep incline. At the foot of the slope, cars honk in stalled traffic; blue light rises from the sea beyond. He knows what it is about this city: at every turn the sudden confrontation with sky and sea. The air sparkles and sits moistly on the cheeks and nose and eyelids. And everywhere the self-sufficiency, the self-absorption of island dwellers.
He presses a palm against the dull aching in the left side of his abdomen. He had been sick in the prison camp and expected to die and had felt no fear. But here, a bit of blood in the stool one time and he had experienced the clutching terror of the abyss. And now, the fissure of obliteration, death beyond death, has opened again—she will let him go, let him dissolve in the cosmic vat; Aeneas, if he could have concealed it from the gods, would have dumped Anchises in Troy and taken off without him. Magnus walks with painful slowness through the lively streets, an exile doubly exiled. The air is not his, the smells lifting in warm gusts from opened doors are not for him. Now, now is when he misses Gabriela—soft-eyed, with the tic she had of tilting her head as if listening when nothing was being said, hearing bird sounds perhaps, or a child’s weeping or, more likely, a telltale breathing just outside the door. She accused him one time of having her watched. It was he who was being watched.
He is walking, he realizes, toward Lucinda’s apartment. She, too, is tiring of him. “You want to get rid of your daughter’s boy? Let me tell you about my auntie’s girl friend. A widowed lawyer in the town, a white man, fell in love with her. She was beautiful, lightskinned, lively. But he couldn’t marry her, of course, and he didn’t want anyone else to marry her. So he scared off all the black boys that came near her. Well she got even. She found another white man and ran away and married him. It was the lawyer’s son.” Lucinda burst out laughing.
And another time: “Never mind, Mr. Commissar, it’ll all work out in the end. Those Mexicans sneaking over the border and all those Cambodians and those Haitians and you and me, we’ll all blend into the same color one day and be rockin’ to the same beat an’ chewin’ on the same pizza hamburger with nachos an’ kulbassa.” She smiled her half-smile, amused by him and his machinations, and amused by the machinations and writhings of all the world, having rid herself of past and future.
Little Mario, round-headed like his father, blows pink gum bubbles almost as big as his head and standing on a chair commands with a little device in his hand the quick maneuvers of a tiny red racing car across the kitchen floor.
Magnus stands looking toward the sea. The light falling between buildings shimmers and changes from blue to lavender. He was responsible one time for the arrest of a friend, a good friend. And was himself, no doubt, betrayed by a friend.
“How is it possible,” Gabriela once said, “to convey it all to a people whose toilet paper is so soft?”
Magnus watches the light fall and sees his daughter tall and beautiful, dressed like Lucinda in elegant clothes, serving cocktails and little canapés and a delicious dinner with wine. She will have a child, he thinks, tall as she is with Gabriela’s eyes, and that, he tells himself, is enough. And then he remembers how she used to tickle him and the poems she wrote for him—In the kingdom of the spider he lies— and he feels his heart crack and his bones beginning to dissolve into oblivion.