Friday, March 30, 2012

Fiesta of Smoke: More of Calypso and Hill

Today’s post is an excerpt from my novel in progress, Fiesta of Smoke. In this snippet, Hill and Calypso, who have just met for the first time, have dinner together, then sit bantering at an outdoor café. The manuscript for Fiesta of Smoke now numbers 868 pages and I’m working hard on the closing chapters. So, back to writing. I hope you enjoy today’s excerpt!

For those who may 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; Calypso and Hill Dine was posted on March 14.

. . . .

The conversation turned to more general topics, until dinner was finished. Hill ordered îles flotantes for dessert and watched with amusement as she doctored her coffee with outlandish amounts of sugar and cream.
Years in the business had made him adept at sizing people up quickly but Calypso represented something of an enigma. She carried herself like a much older woman, self-possessed and confident. Yet, with the possible exception of the backs of her hands, powdered with a faint freckling of brown spots, she appeared no older than about thirty-five. Forty-two, max, he decided.

“Forty-eight,” she said unexpectedly, laying her spoon neatly on the saucer and flipping her eyes up to his with an annoyed glance.

Hill was completely caught off guard.

“Sorry!” he muttered, thrusting his lip into his coffee and holding it there for a long, steadying sip.

Forty-eight! But without that look of careful preservation that women began to evince around that age, turning themselves out as products of skin-care systems, hairdressers, dressmakers, plastic surgeons, and then moving with a stately delicacy as if any abrupt move would break some fragile membrane that held them tenuously together.

“You don't look it.”

“This, as they say, is how forty-eight looks.”

“Yes, but I mean, many women approach it differently. . . ”

“Oh, I know. They start smearing airplane glue on their faces. Or shellac -- whatever it is that gives them that look of being stretched too tight. Like contact with water -- or lacquer thinner -- would make them sag.”

“I guess most women . . .”

“It's a matter of genes, I’m sure,” she cut in on his banal generality-in-the-making. “And my expectation, deeply held, that I will never grow old. Like Calypso.”

Hill sat back and studied her openly now, feeling that the conversation has given him unspoken license. So he was alarmed when she suddenly snapped at him, anger flaring her nostrils, her mouth grim:

“Age! Age! This fascination of the male with age! Is she too old?  Has she begun to wrinkle? Do her breasts sag? You create narcissists and neurotics in your women, draining off all their energies in the minute scrutiny of this thin fabric, this organ . . .”  She pinched up the skin on her arm. “It disgusts me!”

She snatched up her bag and began to push back her chair. Hill had to stand, reaching across the table, to lay a restraining hand on her arm.

“Please! Please! Forgive me. Please sit down again. I am a fool. Please. Please forgive my rudeness.”

She wavered, body half-bent over the table, eyes seeking the door.

Hill could imagine her flight: the river wind of early evening would catch her skirt as she emerged from the restaurant. It would flare about her like yellow wings and in a few quick strides, she would be to the corner, melting into the shadows . . . gone!

Obviously, there was no indemnity against the foolishness of falling instantly in love with her and he never had been a gambler in his life . . .

“Please. You must forgive me. You’re right: I’ve been concentrating on the most minor of your attributes, your beauty, although it is indeed
glorious . . .”

Still he felt the pull of her arm, leaning out toward the coming night.

“ . . . but only because I suspect it is the veil of deeper worth . . .”

         Her eyes flicked toward him, her face now watchful.

“ . . . only because I have to satisfy myself with acquaintance with the outer woman, until the inner opens to me . . .”

She smiled, the weary, wry smile he was already coming to anticipate.

“Well done, Hill.”

She pulled her arm quickly upward, breaking his grasp, and -- his breath stopped while she hung poised -- slowly settled into her seat again.

“Just so we’re perfectly clear: I am not an object!” The face she bent to her coffee was still tight with anger.
. . . .

From the Left Bank, floodlights threw the flying buttresses and sculpture on the side of Notre Dame into high relief. Calypso had a profile, he mused, watching her watch the cathedral, such as one sometimes sees incused on ancient coins.

There was nothing of the slattern in her: she was totally, unimpeachably, gloriously female, without a whisper of that jaded quality that so often emanates from femmes d’un certain âge. She belonged in a room where pier glass would reflect her from every angle as she moved across polished parquet floors. She was that 20th-century anachronism: a lady.

Any pretense that he was a disinterested newsman would, at this point, he realized, be sheer nonsense. He felt ingenuous as a deer, gazing at her with the innocent brown eyes of surrender, capitulating without a shot having been fired.

They had, to this point, skirted around topics of a purely personal nature. This, after three full hours of acquaintance, surprised him. He was accustomed to eliciting information like a cannery putting up peas: mechanically, at high speed, with precision, neatly packaged.

He did know that Calypso was a writer. This much she had confided and not much more. She seemed more comfortable listening than talking and when she did speak, it was more in the nature of general observations than factual personal material. As if to emphasize this perception, she turned to him, saying,  “Those great swags of ivy hanging down the quai almost to the water always seem to me to have a valedictory air, as if some occasion of tremendous importance were about to transpire, or had just taken place -- the death of a king, possibly. Something grand and tragic.”

She ran her eyes over Hill, who hunched on a tiny metal café chair like a bear on a beach ball, his suit rumpled, his tie askew. An unlikely companion. She wondered, as she turned back to her contemplation of Notre Dame, what had induced her to take up with him -- besides his obvious protection from the watcher.

Perhaps there was something to the notion of the attraction of opposites. The man must be half a foot over six feet, with hands like baseball mitts and a paunch like a wine cask. He was everything Calypso avoided in herself: overweight, poorly-tailored, badly shorn and noisy. Still, there was something appealing about him that she couldn’t define but which she suspected might simply be a startlingly brilliant mind.

“So what kind of writing do you do?” Hill asked, leaning toward her across the little metal table. “Don't say you’re a correspondent. Your face isn’t tough enough.”

She smiled. “No. Nothing so hard-edged as that. There’s a juncture in my brain where facts and the joy of writing diverge, I’m afraid. I’m a novelist.”

“I don't think I’ve read any of your books. I’m sorry . . .”

“Oh, I don’t use my own name -- people assume it’s a nom de plume, anyway. I write under Michael Rockland.”

“Michael Rockland! No kidding! You were on the Times Bestseller List most of last year!”

“Ummm hummmm . . .”

“But I’ve still never read any of your books,” he admitted.

“Think nothing of it. I got tired of writing excellent, obscure novels and living in poverty, so I wrote a blockbuster, that’s all. It’s full of screeching Masarati tires, clashing gears and square chins with clefts. The men are all dangerous and virile and the women are beautiful and intelligent but vulnerable. Pap for the masses. The only thing I’m proud of concerning it is my bank account.”

“Ah, I know the type. The men wear aviator glasses. They are tanned and suave and move within an atmosphere of menace.”

“Yes, indeed. And the only one to whom they show their essential vulnerability is the woman they love.”

“That’s a switch -- the vulnerable man, I mean.”

“Not at all. Remember who buys books: women. He’s the prototypic ideal man, in control of the world but with the soul of a poet.”

“Of course, in real life you wind up with someone like me.” Hill gestured grandly across his chest, as if presenting her with some noble, unknown quality. “I’m a real man, with the body of a water buffalo and the soul of a turnip. Tell me you’re in love with me!”

In laughter, all the planes of her face fractured. The flesh mounded on her high cheekbones, her eyes closed to dancing slits, her mouth opened in a glorious, toothy smile. She was transformed from a serene and regal presence to an imp. It was a face that could find humor in anything, including herself. Hill was duly captivated.

“She laughs. She laughs. Why do they always laugh?” He shrugged, his palms raised heavenward, in a gesture so French that it gave her instant insight into Hill’s long familiarity with Paris.

“Tell me you love me,” he insisted again.

“I’m saving myself for someone tall, dark, and handsome.”

“They don’t make them that way anymore. The dark ones are all squat. The tall ones are Aryan types with crazy blue eyes. And I’ve cornered the market on handsome. The man of your dreams doesn’t exist.”

Her face became very earnest. Her eyes circled his face but seemed to be seeing something else. “Oh yes, Hill, but he does,” she said softly. “He most certainly does.”

“Complete with sunglasses?” Hill was alarmed by her sudden seriousness.

“Mirrored,” she affirmed.

“And a dark aura of danger?” he gasped in mock incredulity.

“Ominous, definitely.”

“If you tell me he drives a Masarati, I’ll tell you you’re living a schizoid delusion -- or you’re a fool for some no-good playboy.”

She granted him a thin smile. “I have no idea what kind of car he drives.”

“Ah ha! So you admit you scarcely know the man. He may be married -- as if that mattered nowadays. Or a neoNazi, or a homosexual. This man is a figment, concocted from a few sightings, a lot of romantic garbage your mother fed you as a girl and an over-active imagination! I knew it. Why bother finding out how vacuous or insane or thoroughly nasty he is, when you can have me, right here, right now, in the too, too solid flesh?”

She smiled her wry smile and intended to say, “Hill, you’re too much,” but what came out, with a little shake of the head, was, “I feel like I’ve known you forever.”

“Oh, but you have. We were lovers in Egypt under Akhenaten, remember? It was fantastic. We bound our wrists together and promised to reincarnate together again and again to appease our unappeasable lust for one another. Surely you haven’t forgotten?”

“No. I haven’t forgotten -- I’ve just changed my mind. It’s tall, dark and handsome this time around, Hill. Accept it.”
. . . .

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