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Lament in Egypt

ISSUE:  Autumn 1944

The bar was small and quiet, and meant for serious drinking. It sat in an alcove off the lobby of a respectable second-class hotel, well insulated from the vest of Cairo. It was a good bar, popular enough to have been placed out of bounds to enlisted men. Usually it was filled with British officers, but now it was after hours; the lobby was deserted and there were only three men at the bar. Two of them, a British captain with a flowing red mustache and a small Anglo-Indian major, were talking to the bartender. The third was a young American lieutenant who wore pilot’s wings. He sat by himself, looking into his drink. The talk of the men was low, deferring to the hour, and there was a conspirator’s silence all about the place. The street noises filtered through the lobby door, but faintly and unobtrusively, laying like thin smoke over the conversation and the soft ring of glasses. The air was heavy and a little tired, and there was a sense of lateness over everything. Only the bartender seemed animated. He was a fair and cheerful man, aggressively proud of his nationality. The two officers were trying to guess what he was; the bartender knew that they would never guess and was very pleased. “Russian?” the British captain asked. The bartender shook his head. “I will give you one hundred guesses,” he said. He spoke English well, with a slight anonymous accent. “Polish,” the captain said. “Latvian,” said the Anglo-Indian major. “Two hundred guesses,” said the bartender. He stood before them with folded arms, turning his head from side to side, exposing himself with confidence.

“1 don’t know what you are,” said the captain wearily. He pushed his glass across the bar. “Just give me another drink.”

“I am a Georgian,” said the bartender, proudly.

“You don’t say,” the major said.

“A typical Georgian,” said the bartender.

“Doesn’t that make you a Russian?” the captain asked.

“I am from Georgia, not Russia,” said the bartender. “There is a great difference.”

He took a bottle from the shelves behind the bar and refilled the captain’s glass. The major finished his drink, put some money on the bar, and left. When he opened the door to the street, the city suddenly rushed in, loud and raucous, lingering even after the door had been closed. The American lieutenant leaned toward the British captain and said, “Do you know anything about epilepsy?”

The captain put down his drink. “No, I don’t,” he said.

“Oh,” the American said. He continued to look at the captain and then he turned and looked at the bartender. “Do you?”

“I know what happens,” the bartender said. “What happens?” “You have fits.”

“Oh, I know that,” the American said. He was very young, certainly not more than twenty. He had a boy’s face, clean and fine, with a short straight nose and a mouth that had not yet lost its pout. He looked like all the other boy pilots who sat in bars, except that he wore his shapeless air force cap in the middle of bis head, without rakishness, giving him a sudden sober distinction. He did not seem particularly drunk, only moody.

“They call them seizures, not fits,” he said.

“Same thing,” the bartender said.

“Yes,” the American said. He was looking at his drink the way he bad looked at the two men, as though he had never seen anything’ like it before. The drink was a Tom Collins, about half full. He picked it up and held it in his hand for a moment, then drank it all. He pushed the empty glass toward the bartender.

“You say you’re from Georgia?” he said. His voice was high, but expressionless. He spoke without interest, the speech seeming to come separate from his mind.

“That’s right,” the bartender said.

“You don’t talk like you’re from Georgia,” the American said.

“I’ve been away a long time,” the bartender said. He was making another Tom Collins, squeezing a lime.

“I’m from Connecticut,” the American said. He looked again at the British captain. “Where are you from?”

“Surrey,” the captain said.

“I know where that is,” the American said. “I landed at a field there once.” “Really?” the captain said.

“I forget the name of the place,” the American said. He was suddenly embarrassed. The door opened and an Arab boy in a long white robe came halfway into the lobby, carrying a shoe shine box. The bartender spoke to him in Arabic and the boy went out, but in that moment the city had surged into the room again, bearing its sound as a wave hears driftwood, and then retreating, slowly and reluctantly, as the surf returns to the sea.

“I forget a lot of things,” the American said.

He was speaking to himself. The bartender finished making the drink and set it before him; then he looked at the clock behind the bar. “One for the road,” he said to the British captain.

“Not for me,” the captain said.

“I’ll have another,” the American said. He picked up his drink and swallowed half of it. He drank as he talked, without interest or joy. The bartender shrugged and reached under the bar for a clean glass.

“You’re an airman, aren’t you?” the British captain asked.

The American nodded. He was watching the bartender, held by the smooth, unhurried movement of his hands. “I can fly anything,” he said without looking up. “Anything at all. I could fly a jeep if they gave me the chance.” He looked away from the bartender’s hands; at the floor; sideways at the row of ribbons on his chest. He returned to his drink and lifted it before his eyes, squinting through the glass.

“They won’t give me the chance,” he said. He drained the glass and spun it toward the bartender. His voice held emotion for the first time. “They won’t give me the chance to do anything. They won’t even let me fly as a passenger. They’re going to wash me right out of the army.” The voice had taken on shock and disbelief; it was high and rapid, finally a boy’s voice: “They’re sending me home in a boat”

The bartender had stopped making the drink. The British captain did not say anything, and then the bartender said, “Did you crack up?”

“What?” said the American. The voice was flat again, and far away.

“Did you crack up?” the British captain asked softly.

“I don’t know.” He was thinking now, trying to remember. The effort stood out on his face; he was like a child before a blackboard, only there was no teacher to help him. “The flak hit us,” he said hopelessly. He looked around, but there was no one at all. “I don’t know what happened after the flak hit us.” His hands were moving by themselves, touching the bar as if it were a piano. The fingers worked like his voice, without connection to his mind, and he watched them from a great distance. He was separate from himself, without continuity, the nerve ends broken and the link finally snapped. His voice came from another distance: “I was hit in the head.”

He took off his cap. The scar ran thinly along the edge of his skull, the white line like a crooked part through the close-cropped hair. He was searching his pockets, bringing out a square of paper and unfolding it with familiar care. He handed it to the captain, who was looking at the sear. “Read it aloud,” he said. “The sentence with the lines

under it.”

The captain took the paper.

“It’s a medical document,” he said.

“Read it,” the American said. “Just that one sentence. I want to hear someone read it.”

His hands were holding the glass now, the knuckles showing white under the clear skin. The British captain smoothed the paper on the bar. He started to read and stopped, and then he read in a low flat voice:

” ‘This man will have epileptic seizures.’ “

“That’s me,” the American said. “I’m going to have epileptic seizures.”

There was no dispute; there was no movement, no sound; the room turned on the boy, waiting for him. He was finally satisfied. He reached for the paper, which the captain gave him quietly, and read the sentence to himself, his lips spelling out the words. He refolded the paper and put it in his pocket and took up the new drink that the bartender had placed before him.

“I don’t even know what it’s like,” he said, surprised. The clock behind the bar whirred and began to strike the hour. The chimes sounded very loud in the room. In the distance was the sound of an automobile horn, like a man blowing his nose.

“I don’t even know when it’s going to happen,” the boy said.

The horn was insistent, striking through the muffled city, aimed at the bar. The American looked toward the door, around the lobby, at the row of bottles behind the bar. He lifted his drink and put it down again. He held it in his hand, and then he drained the glass and set it carefully on the bar. He took a bill from his pocket and gave it to the bartender.

“Is that enough?” he asked.

“You get change,” the bartender said.

“Keep it.” He slid off the stool and stood with the cap in his hand. “Is there anyone who would know?” he said to the captain.

“You might ask a doctor,” the captain said.

“No,” the boy said. “I don’t want to ask a doctor.” He put on his cap, adjusting it over the scar. He watched a fly crawl over the rim of his glass. The horn had stopped, but its echo rang silently in the air.

“I looked it up in a book,” he said to the bartender. “The words were so big.” He started for the door, then turned back: “You say you’re from Georgia?”

“That’s right,” the bartender said.

The American shook his head. “You don’t talk like someone from Georgia.”

He looked at the bartender and then at the British captain, and then he turned and went slowly through the lobby and out into the street.


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