This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: The Occult, No. 22
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— Ghosts? Alida said. In an old house like this, probably.
Robert was only joking, but he had expected a less equivocal answer. — I see. Is that why…?
— The price? Alida laughed. — Oh, honey, no. That’s called divorce. And it’s winter, you’re smart to be buying in the winter.
— I see, Robert said again. And the furniture?
— Not included! But if you want it, I can ask the seller. I don’t know where she thinks it will all go.
— Thanks, but no.
— New broom, Alida said. Just what an old house needs. Look, here’s a cedar closet for your coats and sweaters and things.
Half an hour later, Robert shook Alida’s oddly warm hand, got into his car, and found his way to the Taconic. He wanted the house. Who wouldn’t want it? A historic three-bedroom farmhouse on five acres of land, hundreds of feet above sea level, and relatively close to the city! By the time he reached Westchester, Robert was daydreaming, masochistically, about being outbid by vile hedgies who would lay glass tile in the shower, or crypto-bros who’d hold shamanic rituals in the woods. He called Alida from the Bronx and said he was ready to make an offer.
— Wow, okay, love at first sight?
— It’s a good place, Robert said stiffly.
Four busy weeks later, the house belonged to Robert. He drove up to take possession on a Friday afternoon, bringing with him a few things that would come in handy. But his first emotion, on opening what was now his side door, and stepping into his mud room, was disappointment. Now that the furniture was gone, the rooms looked smaller than he remembered, and less bright. The floor bulged, as though trying to contain something that was trying to come up from below. The charming Revolutionary stairs were crooked, the paint on their treads badly scratched. Robert touched the ovoid complexities that ran along the underside of the dining-room mantel: original woodwork, Alida had affirmed. Carved in the days when the ink wasn’t dry on the Constitution. He tried to project his mind back into that time, to feel the thrill of the American experiment as the people who lived here then might have felt it, but what he actually felt was that the previous owners’ furniture might be gone, but its smell remained: cat pee and Febreze. He opened one of the beautiful twelve-paned windows and let in a slab of frigid air.
When he looked in the living room, he saw that the previous owners’ furniture was not, in fact, entirely gone. A loveseat and a rocking chair remained: the chair by the front windows, the loveseat at an angle to the fireplace. Robert wondered if the seller had left them behind for him. More likely she’d run out of room in the moving truck, and guessed it wouldn’t be worth his while to complain. And she was right, he thought, but still. Away with you! He lifted the rocking chair, with the idea that he’d stick it in the basement, but it was strangely heavy, as if its frame were reinforced with lead. It didn’t matter. Robert would come back with guys — guys would remove it. On his way out of the room he noticed a third item that had been left behind: an iron lawn jockey which functioned as a doorstop, keeping the living-room door open. He scowled at it. It grinned indifferently.
— You’re going, too, he said.
He went out to the car and brought in his supplies. The easel, the precious Audubon, the tackle box with his watercolors and inks. A box of kitchen things and some meager groceries from the gas-station deli on Route 9. A beat-up but still warm ski jacket, which he hung in the cedar closet. A pair of binoculars. On his last trip in, he saw that it had begun to snow. He set up the easel in the little south-facing room he’d marked out as his studio, and spent a while turning it one way and another. When it got dark he went downstairs. The snow fell heavily now: he could see it swirling outside the kitchen windows. Robert had planned to drive on to the house of some old friends who lived in the Catskills, but the thought of attempting their mountain road at night, in a snowstorm, discouraged him. Why chance it? He called his friends to say he wasn’t coming; they did not sound disappointed, or even, he thought, particularly surprised.
Robert heated a can of minestrone in the pot he’d brought from the city, buttered two slices of un-toasted bread, and took the meal into the living room. He sat in the rocking chair and watched snowflakes halo a white-blue streetlamp up the road. What did people do here in the winter, he wondered. He pictured a fire in the fireplace, a frocky Revolutionary family singing along with an odd tortoiseshell piano, only he didn’t know any songs from the period, so their music was a jumble of Christmas carols and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He washed his dishes with fragrant gas-station-deli dish soap, brushed his teeth, and lay down on the loveseat to check his phone. It, the loveseat, was too short, but if he drew his knees up it became tolerable. The problem was the cushion, which stank of farts and dust. If only he had something to spray it with, he thought, and chuckled at his own foolishness and snobbery. That was when the ghost came in. She was black, which was almost as surprising to Robert as her being a ghost at all.
She was much younger than Robert, was his next thought. Thirty at most. She wore a long brown dress and a blue apron. Her hair was tied back under a neat yellow kerchief.
— You shouldn’t have let the fire go out, she said.
— Sorry, Robert said.
— Never mind, the ghost said. Only my knees hurt when it’s cold like this. Looks like it’s going to snow all night.
— How can you tell?
— No wind, and there’s a smell in the air, can’t you smell it? A heavy smell.
— Maybe. Robert smelled only sofa cushion.
— There, the ghost said, without having done anything visible. She rose to her feet.
— Will you need anything else?
— Have you got a bed? Robert was delighted by his failure to be shocked, unless this was shock.
— You want a bed down here?
— No, never mind. What’s your name?
— Have you been here long, Anna?
— Yes, a while.
— I just moved in, Robert said. I’m Robert.
Anna curtsied. Before he could say anything else, she was gone: carried out of the room on quiet ghostly feet. Robert lay still, almost not breathing, not because he was afraid of the ghost — he still wasn’t — but because he was afraid of inconveniencing her by making her come back in. This is extremely strange, he thought, but he was the one who had brought up ghosts in the first place, so he couldn’t claim to be entirely surprised. And it was nice, in a way, to imagine that he wasn’t alone.
The snow was impassable the next morning. Robert’s car, seen from the house, was a white lump. He boiled water, made a mug of fancy Ethiopian coffee, and wondered what to do. He remembered seeing a shovel on the porch, but if it had been there once, it was gone now. The storm had left bitter cold air behind, and gusts of wind that kicked up the stinging dry snow. Robert hurried back in and stood in the mud room, rubbing his frozen hands. He’d have to call for help. Fortunately, there was a phone book in the coat closet, a fat yellow phone book, practically a historic artifact. Robert looked up “Snow Removal” and made a round of calls, but no one answered. He left his number, trying not to sound too desperate, or too out-of-town. He went down to the basement to look for that shovel, and was surprised to find, in the jumble of paint cans and nail-bearing boards which the previous owner had left behind, a low red bookcase full of paperbacks. They were all mysteries, Robert saw, and practically all by the same person, a writer he’d never heard of named Towers Wick. Their titles all had Death in them: Death of an Average Joe, Death Takes Ten, Death Doubles Down. Robert was not a mystery reader; he liked the classics, Balzac, Dickens, Conrad, Henry James. Still, beggars, et cetera. He took a much-used copy of Death, All Included up to the living room, and, with an easy feeling that the house was looking out for him, settled in the rocking chair and waited for the snow-removal people to call.
Death, All Included was set in one of those hermetic Caribbean resorts that Robert had instinctually avoided all his life: a compound of tawny cement bungalows against a background of mangrove swamps, a white beach and sparkling blue water all the way to the horizon. The main characters were Rex, a portly old detective, and his young assistant, Archie; they were on vacation. They did what vacationing people do: sat on the veranda and watched the ocean, hunted for seashells, fussed over the food. Inevitably, a dead body was going to show up, and their holiday would become an investigation, but meanwhile, for pages and pages, nothing much happened. Rex argued with the chef about the béarnaise sauce. Archie took a snorkeling lesson. They both smoked and drank as if no one would ever get cancer. Ah, the ’50s, Robert thought. He wondered if Death, All Included was a late volume in the Towers Wick corpus, and he, Wick, was toying deliberately with the reader’s expectations.
Anna was wiping a ghostly rag along the windowsills.
— Oh! Robert said. I didn’t see you come in.
— Just tidying up. Will you be wanting dinner?
Robert thought it was early to be asking about dinner, then remembered that in Anna’s era it had been the midday meal. — No, thanks, he said. I’m hoping to be on my way before then.
— So soon?
— Actually, I was supposed to leave last night, my friends are expecting me.
— Why are you here? The question had occurred to him the night before.
— Why do you think? Anna said.
Robert felt suddenly that he had entered uncertain territory. — I suppose there’s something you have to do, he said. Some task you left unfinished when you were … Could he say alive? Call a ghost a ghost? — Earlier, he concluded.
Anna laughed sharply. — There’s always something to do in an old house like this.
When she had left, silently, insubstantially, Robert got his phone and verified what he had suspected to be the case, that New York State had permitted slavery until 1827, decades after this house was built. If Anna had been here since the beginning — if she had died, as was probable, in her ’20s or ’30s — then she might have died a slave, and, by some ghastly metaphysics, she might be one still. The question was, what to do about it? Free ghost slave, Robert typed into his phone, but the internet was useless for this. Probably you had to call a priest, to arrange an exorcism. Robert scowled. He had known some priests as a child and his memories of them were not good. Anyway, he thought, these people would have been Protestants. Wouldn’t they? Soon he was daydreaming about having people to dinner. Yes, she’s a real ghost. Of an enslaved person. Did you know, slavery was legal in New York until 1827? Just about every household up here had a slave or two. A reminder that you Northerners are hardly guiltless.
Robert was hungry. He heated a can of black bean soup and ate it standing up, in the kitchen, then he pulled on his coat and city shoes and went outside. The snow, it turned out, was deep but light. He could wade through it, kicking up sprays of glittering crystals as he went, leaving a clear track behind. His car was good and buried, but he brushed snow from the windshield with his sleeve, and determined that it would take only a few minutes to clear the rest of it. He went back into the house, took off his shoes, and was suddenly overcome by the desire to lie down. He hadn’t slept well the night before, and he hadn’t eaten well, either. He sank onto the loveseat, picked up Death, All Included. Apparently Towers Wick had known something about tropical fish, and he wanted you to know it, too: there were pages and pages of Archie snorkeling, in the company of amberjacks and African pompanos, French angelfish and cocoa damselfish. When he came out of the water, Rex was nowhere to be seen. A crime! Robert thought, but no. Rex had thrown out his back carrying a beach umbrella. He was getting a massage from Clarence, the physical therapist. His large buttocks trembled under a threadbare white towel. Ah, realism, Robert thought. The triumph of the superfluous detail. Only what did it triumph over? Lightning, pirate ships, tombs with bloody hands rising out of them, a terrible pair of eyes — before Robert knew it, he was asleep.
When he woke up, it was nearly dark, and icy rain thwapped the windows. Robert felt suddenly desperate to be gone from this place. Why was he still here, what had happened to his real life? He stuffed a few things irritably into a gym bag, turned down the heat, switched off the lights. But his shoes had been ruined: drenched in melted snow and left beside the baseboard heater, they had curled up like clown shoes. He couldn’t even put them on — something was wrong with the width. Ridiculous, he thought. Shoes in hand, he opened the front door, and stepped, in his socks, into the slush, but at this point it occurred to him that he was about to do something stupid. Even if he could stand outside long enough to free the car, was he going to drive back to the city in wet socks? He went back in. He’d packed his kitchen things in newspaper but he now stuffed it into his shoes, and used his fork and knife as straighteners. He changed his socks: already his toes were red with cold. If he’d stayed out any longer, he’d probably have got frostbite. He turned the heat back up.
— Well, Anna, I guess it’s you and me, he said.
Anna came around a corner, on the far side of which, so far as Robert knew, there was only a wall. — Did you want something?
— Roast chicken for dinner tonight.
— You mean, for supper? I’ll see what we have in the cold room.
Anna vanished again. Cold room? Did the house have a cold room? Maybe in the days when all the rooms had been cold.
— Come back, Robert said. I was just kidding.
But Anna could not be kidded like that. Robert heated a can of chili vegetable soup and ate it with his sole remaining utensil, the spoon. He washed up. His shoes were still not dry and by the sound of it the icy rain was still going strong, so he withdrew to the living room, to the rocking chair, which was beginning to feel like his chair, the way a restaurant you visit twice on a vacation starts to feel like your restaurant. He opened Death, All Included to where he’d left off. Archie and Rex sat in the hotel’s dining room, watching the waiters nail sheets of plywood over the French windows. A hurricane was coming, but Clarence, who doubled as the headwaiter, had told them not to worry. The island got hurricanes all the time. Tomorrow, he said, you’re going to see some big waves! Tonight, enjoy your dinner. It was some sort of flat fish, haphazardly sautéed, with cherry tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, and a basket of chewy dinner rolls. Served with an inferior Chablis, Rex noted, disapprovingly.
— Give them a break, Archie said. They’re all on hurricane duty.
— What? I can’t hear you over this infernal hammering.
— Give them a break, Archie said.
— Absolutely not, Rex said. This is my break. They may take theirs at another time.
— You’re a curmudgeon, Archie said.
— Never mind. I’m going out for a smoke.
— I’ll join you.
They went out. The sky was black, over a black ocean. The wind had not yet picked up. A couple of young boys were carrying the umbrellas in.
— Looks like the end of the world out there, Archie said.
— Not likely, Rex said. Although I’d rather perish than eat whatever they’re serving for dessert.
— I’ll bet you would, Archie said. How long are we going to stay here, anyway? I’ve chatted up all the eligible women, and nothing doing. The fish, likewise.
— Perhaps you should focus on the pleasures of the mind.
— In a place like this?
— Certainly, Rex said. For instance, have you noticed that the ashtrays in our room are emptied four times a day? At ten, noon, four, and six.
— Great. If any of our ashes go missing, I’ll know where to look.
— Will you? Do you know who empties them? That boy there. He also puts fresh flowers in that ugly blue vase on the dresser.
Archie sighed. — From which you conclude…?
— Nothing, except that this hotel is understaffed. But I notice, Archie. There can be no rest from noticing.
Their conversation continued, but Robert didn’t follow it. He was thinking about what made a world — the same question he’d asked in his prize-winning book, thirty years ago. How did a story become a world? Did it have to contain pointless conversations, superfluous details? Did you have to be able to draw a map of it, like Yoknapatawpha County? In his book, Robert had argued that a story became a world when it contained the possibility of meaningful action, with the emphasis on possibility: no one had to do anything, but you had to believe that they could. Having a world, he’d argued, was the opposite of being helpless. Looking back, there was something very Vietnam War-y about his thesis: it was what a young man who’d once climbed the fence outside the Pentagon, and been arrested for it, might think. And sure enough, when the ’90s rolled around and the grounds of the conversation shifted to that other question, who acts, Robert’s book had not become objectionable so much as it became irrelevant. Robert still taught from it; the angry young man he had been died hard. But he was already shifting his grounds, too, becoming involved in the university’s administration. It had been years since it occurred to him to ask, seriously, what makes a world? Now he wondered if a world was something that shut something else out. But what? Another world?
— Anna! he called.
— Do you have a minute?
Robert wondered at that. How could a ghost not have a minute? She’d been here for centuries.
— I want to help you, he said. Is there something I can do?
— Can you cook?
— Yes, Robert said, as a matter of fact. But that’s not what I mean. I want to release you from this work you’re doing.
— You want to let me go?
— I want to free you, Anna. You should have a life of your own. Or an afterlife, I don’t know how these things work.
— Who are you? Anna said.
— I don’t know what you mean.
— Where do you come from? What do you do?
— I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina, originally. I live in New York. I am about to retire from a very well-respected university.
Robert wondered if she could hear the irony in that last phrase. Probably it was hard to respect any place when you knew how people ran it.
— Why are you here?
— To enjoy some peace in my old age, Robert said, and meant it.
Anna looked at him squarely. — Tomorrow is my day off, she said. Do you need anything before I go?
— No, Robert said. He felt strangely flattened by their conversation. Thank you, Anna.
— All right, Anna said. Be careful if you go outside, the steps are icy.
Robert slept well that night, and woke up with a hard-on. The rain had stopped; the sky was a deep clear blue, an almost contrite blue, hiding nothing. Branches sparkled in the low yellow sunlight. Robert peed, and his erection went away, but that was all right. He was alive, life was everywhere, he was full of life! He was, however, running low on food. Fortunately, his shoes were once again shoe-shaped. He put them on, went out, slipped on the porch steps, which were sheeted in transparent ice, fell, and landed painfully on his coccyx and the middle of his back. He lay there for a bit, the breath knocked out of him, then clutched the railing and tried to stand. The sun had melted the skin of the ice, and his leather-soled city shoes got no traction. His back twinged ominously. In the end he crawled back into the house, and sat, aching and humbled, on the mud-room floor. He would have to call someone, but who? For some reason he thought of Bernard, all cozy in Narragansett, but Bernard despised him now. Anyway, what could Bernard do? Better to call an ambulance, although he doubted they could get up the steps. Call the police, the fire department? They would laugh at him for years.
— Anna! he shouted.
The ghost did not appear. Of course not: it was Sunday, her day off.
With his hand on the small of his back, Robert lurched into the living room and lowered himself into the rocking chair. Ravens hopped on the icy lawn, calling hoarsely to one another. Robert had no desire to sketch them, although he’d heard ravens were very intelligent, and remembered the wrongs that had been done to them from one generation to the next. Unless these were crows? His ankle throbbed; pulling up his pants leg, he saw that it was swelling. What a mess.
Worse, he’d forgotten to charge his phone; now the battery was nearly dead. This was, he thought, a very old situation. Survival. Not that his survival was in doubt: he’d call the police the moment there was any real danger. In the meantime he could play at feeling what previous occupants of the house had surely felt, the tightening of necessity, the need to plan, and to act. He took off his sock and wrapped it around his ankle, as a bandage. As soon as he could walk, he’d look in the freezer: surely there was ice. He’d ice his back. He’d make it to the gas-station deli, and someone there would help him. Groaning, he shifted from the chair to the loveseat, and elevated his bandaged foot. He was a pioneer, he was a frontiersman…For lack of anything better to do while his body repaired itself, he picked up Death, All Included.
He must have read several pages without paying attention the night before, or else Towers Wick was skipping ahead. The hurricane had blown over. The kids were prying the boards off the dining-room windows, while Archie and Rex watched from the veranda. It was windy outside but not unpleasant: almost like autumn. The beach was strewn with shards of dense white foam. Suddenly Archie put his Bloody Mary down on the white iron table.
He pointed at the surf. Something black lay in it: a log, or maybe a porpoise.
— Someone’s drowned, Archie said. Care to investigate?
— I’m eating, Rex said. You go in and find a doctor.
The staff were busy polishing furniture and mopping the marble floors. No one stood at the concierge’s desk. Finally, Archie found Clarence in a service corridor, pushing a dolly stacked with crates of still-clicking lobsters.
— Clarence, is there a doctor handy? I think somebody’s drowned.
— No, Clarence said, ours is helping at the clinic.
— Dammit. Come on, let’s see if there’s anything you and I can do.
Rex had already gone down to the water to investigate. They followed: sure enough, it was a body, a human body. A black man in tan pants, no shirt, one brown shoe. How he had drowned was a mystery, but it looked as if he had been in the water for some time. Now the surf rolled him from side to side, like a restless sleeper.
— He’s dead, Clarence said.
— Clearly, Rex said. You’d better call the police.
— Yes, sir.
Archie poked at the body with his foot. Horrible to imagine fish eating a body. And then you ate the fish. And then… He helped the body to flop over, and studied its face. No particular expression, no sign of foul play. He was, had been, younger than he looked at first.
— Maybe he fell out of a boat, Clarence said.
— Could be. Come on, Archie.
— Hold on. You’re leaving the scene of a crime?
— Do you see anyone around here who’s going to write me a check?
— Then come on. My eggs have surely become inedible.
Blue evening, and Robert couldn’t stand up. Something was wrong with his middle back: the injured muscles had frozen and set. Or had he fractured a vertebra? Even lifting his head caused him to grimace with pain. Survival, he thought, survival! But his phone didn’t work at all.
— Anna! he shouted.
This time, thank god, she came in.
— I need your help. I’ve hurt my back, and I can’t move.
— Slipped on the steps?
— All right, let me fix you up a liniment.
When Anna came back holding a tin bowl, he felt improbably relieved.
— Can you turn over? she asked.
Painfully, with great effort, he could. Anna sat beside him on the edge of the loveseat.
— I was thinking, she said. Do you really want to do something for me?
— Of course I do.
— Then burn this house down.
— Burn it down.
Without thinking, Robert said, — But I just moved in!
— No, you didn’t, Anna said. All there is, is this stinky loveseat and a chair, and him. She pointed at the lawn jockey. — And they’re not even yours. You have insurance, right?
— Sure, but … Robert was at a loss. Finally he arrived at: — Where would I go?
— You can go back to New York. Or Charlotte. Wherever you like.
— But I don’t want to, Robert said, peevishly.
— Well then, Anna said. She floated to her feet.
So this was a negotiation. — What if I write you a certificate, Robert said.
— Who would read it?
— I don’t know, Anna. I told you, I don’t understand how these things work. What if I bring a lawyer over, or a minister?
— Ha, Anna said.
— At least let me look into it. Maybe there’s something we’re missing, here. Another way out.
— You can look, Anna said. She drifted toward the door.
Christ almighty, Robert thought, I’m being blackmailed by a ghost. But he really didn’t want her to leave, not while he needed her help.
— Fine, he said, I’ll do it.
— Do you promise?
— I promise.
A hand, a ghostly hand, lifted the back of Robert’s shirt. His back was salved with a greasy lotion that smelled of rosemary and burnt hair.
Robert wriggled. The pain in his back was less. He rolled over, sat up. Anna was already at the door.
— Remember, she said, and went out.
Robert hopped to the kitchen and plugged in his phone. It was inexplicable, he thought. Could Anna really have helped him? More likely he’d dreamed her and her weird salve. The body was capable of remarkable changes while asleep. People woke up, their hair all suddenly white… He did remember what he had promised Anna, but he had no serious thought of carrying it out. Why would he burn down a perfectly good house? He’d free her by other means, if she was real, and could be freed. A certificate. A priest, holy water, that mumbo-jumbo.
For some reason he thought of Mara Owen-Jones, who had been a junior professor in his department, some years back. She had come up for tenure, and Robert had fought for her, even though her book — on Dumas père, had it been? — was a turgid mess of critical jargon. We need her perspective, he’d told the dean — this was before Robert was the dean. The students want it. And we need it, too, even if we don’t all admit that we do. — And what is her perspective? the dean asked him. Robert wondered if the dean was putting him on. Unforgivably, he had blushed. — The African-American perspective, he’d said. The perspective of a descendant of slaves, of oppressed people. — Is she? the dean had asked, and, truly, Robert had had no idea. — But come on, Robert said, you aren’t going to suggest that there’s no such thing as the African-American perspective? — I didn’t say that, the dean said, smiling faintly, maliciously. — I just want you to tell me what it is.
Robert had botched it. Ask Mara, he ought to have said. Or just read Invisible Man. Instead he’d tried to answer the question. In the end, it hadn’t mattered much: while the dean dragged his feet, Mara had taken a job in, Robert thought, Minnesota. To this day, her books continued to appear. I tried, though, he thought. You can’t say I didn’t try. His foot was too swollen to fit into his shoe, but it didn’t matter. He called his friends in the Catskills, and explained, in the least alarming way possible, his situation. They promised to jump in the car momentarily. And that’s that, Robert thought. I survive. He sat in the rocking chair to wait. Because it was still there, he picked up Death, All Included —and it welcomed him in.
The police had come and gone. The body was at the morgue, waiting for somebody to claim it. In short, everything was back in order, except Archie, who moped on the veranda, smoking a cigarette and staring at the ocean as if it were a suspect.
— Come in, Rex said, we don’t want to hold up the kitchen.
— In a minute, Archie said.
— You can’t punish me like this, Rex said. It’s not my fault that young man died. Nor is it my job to figure out who killed him, if anyone did.
— I know all that.
— Then why are you being so awful?
— Forget it, Archie said, throwing his cigarette into the sand. It’ll pass.
— It had better, Rex said. Come on. I suggested some adjustments to the béarnaise, and you have to tell me if it’s palatable.
They went in. Robert watched them from the veranda: a strange couple, he thought, but who was he to judge? Most people were strange. He rattled the ice in his glass and wondered what he would do that evening, then his attention was caught by a figure walking on the beach, at the edge of the tide. She wore a dark blue dress, but otherwise she looked exactly like Anna.
— Anna! he shouted.
How strange that she had turned up here, he thought, with a surge of real pleasure: just when he’d thought there would be no one to talk to!
He stood at the railing of the veranda and waved. But, strangely, Anna, if it was Anna, paid him no attention. She walked slowly along the wet white sand, her head down, as though she were looking for something. Once, she knelt to inspect a patch of sand more closely, but so far as Robert could see, there was nothing there. Then she rose to her feet and kept walking.
Robert wondered if he should go down to her. But she must have heard him, must have seen him waving and practically making a fool of himself. It was a case of mistaken identity, he thought. He set his drink on the railing and went in. The dining room was full; Clarence, in his role as headwaiter, was chaperoning a stooped couple to a table by the French windows. Robert waved at him, but Clarence ignored him, too. For a moment Robert was certain that he had spoiled everything somehow: now no one would see him, now he would wait, and wait… The feeling quickly passed, though, and here came Clarence, beaming. He led Robert to a table at the far end of the room, next to a solitary man, a Cuban, maybe, or a Brazilian, who was reading a book. Robert felt a thrill of possibility. He was in a foreign country, and anything could happen, even if, in his experience, nothing ever did.
Paul La Farge is the author of The Night Ocean (2017) and three other novels; also a book of imaginary dreams, The Facts of Winter.