| My favorite chapter (orig. draft) |
The calloused current of Castilla La Mancha bowed without apology through the village streets of Peñas Salutíferas. Evening activity emerged as cobblestones rose in their reflections of the neon storefronts and the corner tabernas rattled with the weary chimes of battered slot machines. Camareros growled their short orders to the cooks in syncopation with the readied and clouded vats of boiling fat. Calamari. Patatas bravas. Pigs’ ears. The last cathedral bell wailed six o’clock. Dogs howled away their paltry meals. Cigarette lighters scraped against the cooling wind. The village treasurer remarked to his mother the absence of a distant train horn that night. The depravity of the chained day gave into rebellion across the newly black and scarlet high cliffs. Rushes of air scoured the alleys and merged all sounds into a chorus of rehearsed and defiant joy. A boy returning from basketball practice leaned into his stereo dial, the sound carrying off the mesa, weak and wounded. Smoke insulated the village with rapt assurances.
Tess and Gordon found a corner table in a third floor dining room named La Brillantina only paces across a vine covered atrium balcony from their sleeping quarters. They faced each other, elbows on white linen, an empty bottle of Rioja between them. Their bodies ached from the full day; serotonin and vitamin D coursed through their cores, enhancing the delirium of their mysterious rambling in the middle of the old world. Tess waved for another bottle to chase down their full chicken.
“What’s going on with your left hand, Dutch?” said Tess. “You keep rubbing it.”
Gordon looked down to see his reflexive movements, his right thumb grasping his left palm, massaging the curl of his aching stump. “War wound,” he said.
“Bullshit.” Tess drew a timed snort from her wine glass and pulled at the chicken in the center of the table with her salad fork. “I’m waiting,” she said, firing an electrified glance into him.
“What, a piano fell on your hand?”
Gordon laughed, realizing his coy reveal was becoming pathetic in her eyes. “I play. Well, I played. I’ll still play.”
Tess measured him carefully, noticing his plain countenance, his disaffection for spinning a yarn just to thrill. His eyes were stolen from the moment they were sharing as if still dilated from a lightning storm, turning grey, with clouds throughout. Tess’ stomach jittered with the discovery that her dinner date held a parallel pathos somewhere beneath his wandering, helpless appearance. He was growing more substantial to her, now, behind a chicken and two bottles of Rioja.
“For a living?” she said.
“Yes, well up until a few weeks ago. I broke my finger falling off a skateboard. I had to cancel some dates this year. I’m on a sort of...vacation here before I decide when and how to rehabilitate it. I’m not looking forward to the first test drive.”
“Skateboard, huh?” She made certain not to put him off by rolling her eyes. “Classical?”
“The classics, yes. Mostly with the State Symphony. A handful of solo concertos, too. Up and down the lake, Chicago, Minneapolis. Some on the coasts by invite.”
“Shame,” she said, “I’m more into the strings adagios. Can you play strings?”
“I’m fucking with you, Dutch,” she laughed, under the steamed veil of her siphoned glass of wine. “Chopin? Liszt? The Nocturnes?”
“Sure, you’re getting there,” said Gordon. “I’d take requests but not just now.”
Tess leaned down to her bag and removed a wireless phone, turning on the power and placing it over the table linen with an orchestrated thump. “This is what I do,” she said, pointing to the glowing main menu screen wallpaper of the Irish Poker Open. She saved a photographic image of one of her side events on table twelve, featuring her takedown of an Australian man who showed down a Jack high flush to her second-nut flush on the river, the two of them flying in the face of a paired board. A thin push for her, but necessary. While Omaha 8 was her best game, the cash pools still ran deeper in the hold-em world. She arched her back and nearly scowled at Gordon as if challenging him to scoff. It was her experience with men—they scoffed.
Gordon smiled. “That’s beautiful,” he said.
Tess fell back into her chair, her defensive aplomb neutralized by his smile. “You…like poker? I mean, do you get it?”
“Well, Tess,” Gordon sat up from his plate and exhaled with discovered relief, “and notice I don’t call you Frenchy, here, but, I’m just glad to see you’re not a lawyer.”
Tess flickered back to the urgent time of her life in Evanston. A light snowfall made the man she held in her hands appear as in a painting. She remembered the glaze in the man’s eyes as she told him she was shrugging away law school, and him, to see the world with cards. She remembered his plaintive (plaintiff) grunts to join her—his useless begging. A part of her remembered the kill in that conversation. She remembered the lightness once she took a step forward and away from that convention. The Bar. The ADA appointment. The wedding. The anchor of children. The stupid home and taupe Toyota. All of it…now someone else’s realized figment. He could still be standing there by the union ice cream shop for all she knew, covered in snow and shellshock. A man’s long-forgotten heartbreak, resurfacing in her biography. While the austere sting of subsistence poker across Europe seasoned her and made her wary of fortunes, it was still Europe, and she was still free.
“Are you lapsing out of habit, or should I call for help?” said Gordon.
“No. And fuck lawyers.” The wine played mercilessly with the hours old residue of cold medication, bringing her bouts of sluggishness mixed with euphoric alertness. She focused on Gordon’s face, determined to extend things with him. “You know why it’s important, why it’s so beautiful to me, cards?”
“I can’t pretend to know, but I’d like to,” he said.
“I once played at law back home,” she belted down two firm swallows of wine and took two long breaths before continuing, “the dialectic. The art of language and rhetoric, the manner of persuasion with voice and word. It was alluring enough, but it never relinquished its command over me. I couldn’t control it. I hated feeling the pawn-ship of acting as a participant and not a commander of that rhetorical form. Decorum and process was floating around, waiting to be assigned and morphed by sticky old men in chambers and classrooms. And all of this confusion I felt was from a language I could only barely manipulate. Twenty-six harmless letters. It tormented me how easily I could let things get away from me over the simple misuse of the goddamned alphabet. One night I picked up a deck of tort flashcards to memorize for a placement exam and I stared at the fucking nonsense on that waxed paper. My eyes were so intensely disappointed that they weren’t staring at jacks, queens, and sevens. I rooted around my apartment and found an old playing deck and counted them off. All fifty-two cards, ready for play, ready to be controlled. Fifty-two, Gordon. Twice the number of the letters in our alphabet and so much more gratifying to use. For the whole night I drank rum and coffee and dealt hands on my empty desk. I was in my new womb, ecstatic with the notion of a rebirth. My fiancé, Arthur, poked his head in every couple of hours to see if I was turning blue and stroking out from a clot in my brain. He couldn’t begin to imagine I was turning into something. Something altogether different. So there you go, Dutch. It was just that stupidly simple. It’s hilarious to look back at moments when you’re grabbed by something, and I mean grabbed hard. It’s a goddamn cliché, but when it happens, fuck, look out.”
The waiter cleared their table and brought them sherries and marzipan. The host of La Brillantina opened the third floor windows as a guitarist and a boy with a Senegal drum encamped below to play away the evening for cigarette money. Car horns turned meek and dwindled.
“Did you marry that guy…Arthur?”
Tess shook her head, refusing the memory. “Christ, no. But had I sucked at poker I probably would have married him, and I’d be preggy in Evanston.”
“And I’d be alone on a broken down train.”
“Something like that,” she said, smirking to expose a playful dimple on the right corner of her lips.
Latching the jamb with a meager brass bolt switch Gordon turned to see Tess bending before a window lamp to pull the chain. The light masked their hotel room in amber. She removed her watch and necklace, placing them beneath the lamp. The open window invited the faint rhythm of the strummer and drummer on the corner and the dim room smelled of wood soap, quilted polyester curtains, and the imbedded musk of cherry tobacco.
Gordon sat at the foot of the bed and kicked off his weary shoes. Playing with the fastener of his watch he fell back on the mattress, pulled down by the collar. Tess emerged over him like a mantis, knelt over his face and kissed, taking the breath from his throat. Gordon reached instinctively for her lower back and ran his hands upward along her skin. He broke from the kiss as she raised her head and he stared at her sharp silhouette; the waxing moonlight turned her shape into a sublime apparition, one he felt compelled to deserve. He rolled her to the side of the mattress by the cool opening of the window and kissed her beneath her left ear.
Laughing, Tess pushed him away. “We’re on a filthy top, Dutch,” she said.
Gordon rose and scrambled through his belt, zipper, and buttons, now naked save for a half-abandoned sock. “What?” he said.
“The blanket. It hasn’t been washed since Franco died.”
Within seconds of her protest Gordon pulled Tess from the mattress, hoisted the flimsy, ribbed blanket from the bed, and hurled it through the window. Tess murmured through a smile and peeled her clothes from her body.
“That’s not even dashing,” she laughed. “It’ll cost us twenty bucks at checkout.”
“I’ll pay it, lady. Consider it a dragon, slain.”
“Just shut up and take off that damn sock.”
They fell back to the cooling, threadbare sheets and played with each other’s hunger throughout the night. Laughter and requital met with still moments of solemnity, hearts in throttle, followed by more laughter. The street music struck the chambers of their chests in unison for hours, ceasing as they found the early morning minutes theirs alone.
-THE CURVATURE, by P. Elliott Doherty