Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fiesta of Smoke: Calypso & Hill Dine

 Today’s post is an excerpt from my novel in progress, Fiesta of Smoke. In this snippet, Hill and Calypso meet for the first time. The manuscript for Fiesta of Smoke now numbers more than 843 pages and I’m excited by my vision for the closing chapters. So, back to writing. I hope you enjoy today’s excerpt!

For those who might have missed them, a synopsis of Fiesta of Smoke can be found on the January 5, 2012 post, the Prologue, on January 8, an introduction to the protagonists Calypso, on February 3, Javier, on February 20 and Hill on March 2.
         Drawing her right foot to her left knee and then extending her leg waist-high, Calypso brings the back of her heel to rest on the top of the bridge railing. Raising her left arm in a graceful port au bras, she proceeds with the familiar routine of ballet stretches, humming a Bach cantata for rhythm.        
         Behind her, a tattered stream of weary tourists straggles by, some stopping momentarily to snap a picture of the back of Notre Dame cathedral, across the channel, as a figure in a gray suit, melting into the shadows of the quai-side trees, disappears in the deepening Left Bank dusk.
         By the time Hill gets onto the bridge, she has taken her leg from the railing and is doing some dainty little series of steps -- a pas de bourée? -- her hands resting on the rail for support, her profile averted. She is apparently completely absorbed in the wonder of Our Lady’s derrière.
         Hill is close enough, now, to ascertain three things: her dress is of a light-weight, open-weave wool of the most sumptuous Naples yellow; a red fox coat, heaped on a big oxblood-colored leather bag, glows like a fire at her feet; and she is humming, barely audibly, the strains of Zum reinen Wasser: “Where streams of living water flow, He to green meadows leadeth. And where the pastures verdant grow with food celestial feedeth.”
         He shambles into attack-ready position: leaning casually against the railing about four feet away -- a distance he deems friendly but not overpowering -- he too gazes at the stunning hind quarters of Our Lady and, after a respectful pause, ventures: “I love Bach, myself.”
         Of course, she stops humming immediately but she is slow to tear her eyes from the spectacle across the river. When she does, it is not to face him but only with a slight turn of the head, the eyes sliding into the corners, regarding him warily. The color has suddenly blanched from her cheeks.
         After a moment, the tension leaves her shoulders and her eyes crinkle wryly. “Truly,” she says. It is not a question and it rolls out between them like a ball of butter spiked with carpet tacks. The accent is American, like his own.
         Twenty-five years of savoir-faire melt and Hill is a fuzz-faced lout from Denver again, all elbows and size-16 shoes.
         “One of his loveliest . . . ” he manages to stammer, “his finest cantatas. I heard it performed there . . .,” he nods across the water to the cathedral, “the second Sunday after Easter. Two years ago.”
         “Such a memory!” She isn’t going to give him an inch. A cold wind comes up-river, wrapping her skirt around her calves. She has beautiful ankles above a pair of expensive-looking pumpkin-colored snake heels. He raises his eyes and finds her grinning.
         “Well -- do you have me all sorted out yet?” she asks pleasantly.
         Time for pure, out-West charm -- ingenuous, all-man, no-horseshit.
         “Listen,” he says, “I know just from looking that you and I are as different as hogwire and harpstring -- but if you’re not otherwise engaged, I’d be honored to take you to an early supper.”
         Her eyes take on a vague and unreadable look, as she gazes searchingly over his shoulder toward the Left Bank quai. Then, to his amazement, they light with a friendly twinkle. She grins again and says, “Okay! As long as we eat here,” nodding behind her toward Île Saint-Louis.
         “Dear Lady . . . whatever your heart desires!” Stooping gallantly, he retireves and then offers to her her coat.
         Hill took Calypso to Au Chariot de L’Isle, a cave close by, one of those subterranean places where they serve bony fish floating in grease, in light so dim they might have forgotten to pay the electric bill. His choice was motivated not by gastronomic considerations but by the fear that if he took time to call a taxi, she would change her mind and vanish like a swallowtail on a March wind.
         She settled right in, however, as if it were the perfect choice, and even condescended to make murmurs over the truly ordinaire wine. Kooky she might be, but a lady, too, through and through.
         “Allow me to introduce myself,” Hill began gallantly, as soon as the waiter had taken their orders. “My name's Hill. I used to be an international man for the Associated Press but now I freelance. More freedom that way.”
         She rested her elbow on the table and her chin on her hand and gazed across the table at him with complete attention, making him feel like the most fascinating thing since the invention of the cotton gin.
         Hill needed to watch himself or he’d be babbling to her like a fool in five minutes. She was the kind of woman who makes a man need to remind himself of that -- a real geisha, born to make a man feel twelve feet tall and virile as a three-peckered billy goat.
         “Just Hill? Is that given or sur-?”
         “Sur. I never divulge the other. Never. Classified information.”
         “Oh, come on. It can’t be that bad. Let me guess . . . is it Elmer?”
         "Good God, no! My mother wasn’t that cruel!”
         “Then it must be Walter.” She is looking deep into his eyes, reading something from them.
         He feels the slow creep of gooseflesh down his arms. “How did you know that? How could you possibly know?” he whispers.
         They’re sitting inside the silence of his surprise when their soup arrives. She smiles as she surveys the oily broth.
         “Just a lucky guess."
         Her lashes cast long, blue, serrated shadows across her cheeks in the candlelight.
         Hill examines her minutely as she sips from her spoon. Her dark hair is swept back into a chignon at the neck, the silky wings riffled slightly by a natural wave, like wind over night water. The face, while not fine-boned, had an indefinable delicacy about it -- a refinement of expression, perhaps, or a factor of coloring? Her skin is the palest apricot, washed with rose -- the complexion of a reposeful child.
         Most extraordinary, however, were her eyes, which set her apart from the run of merely beautiful women. At first, he’d been taken by a wry, dancing twinkle that hinted at humor in the face of life's meanest tricks. But now, over dinner, the color has come through to him -- jade green, ringed around the outer iris with deepest cobalt. And beyond that -- what? That last glance, that penetration of his interior. . .
         He suddenly realized that he didn’t even know her name.
         “Calypso Sercy,” she said, buttering a dab of bread. “And no comments, please. I’ve heard every pun imaginable on the subject, already. I consider it an act of irremediable cruelty on the part of my parents.”
         “Well -- I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that!”
         “It’s not so easy as Walter.”
         “Calypso . . . Calypso . . .”                 
         “She was in love with Ulysses.”
         “Oh yes. The Queen of Someplace. She kept him seven years and promised him immortality if he would stay.”
         “Correct. And was inconsolable when he left.”
         “Why did your parents name you that?”
         “As far as I can tell, they thought it was quite literary -- they had aspirations.”
         “And the last name -- is it spelled the same as . . .?”
         “No. No, quite differently. But the sound is there, the intention . . .”
         “You’ll have to remind me about her.”
         “Circe is the one who turned Scylla into a sea monster and Ulysses’ crew into swine.”
         “My kinda gal!”
         She favored him with a wan smile.

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