The General is happy. He is playing hopscotch on the tiled floor with his own shadow! The tiles are black and white and perfect in the way of tiles. The shadows of his high boots stretch and break like Turkish Taffy each time he reaches the apogee of his hopping, which is nothing laughable -- no, not for one who was wounded long ago beneath the walls of B—r. The General is in love with the hatcheck girl (as am I, who lack the General's magnificent mustache and savoir faire). It is the insouciance that belongs to love alone that accounts for it -- this hopscotching by the banquette ("like a young man in the cavalry"). The General has an assignation, later, in the Mediterranean Room, when she has finished for the night. Until then, she promises to keep his sword safe among the hats. The General has given her a bag of sweets. She is young enough to be swayed by sweets, to be seduced by certain flavors. (Their identity she keeps secret from him, else she will be at his mercy!) All but invisible, she stands among the coats, smelling the night air on them. We are inside and happy to be so! Even the General, whose sword is merely ornamental now that he has been smitten by love. Possessed of an elastic heart, I go in search of the cigarette girl. The palm leaves sway in the artificial breeze. The leisurely palm in its fat bronze pot! The orchestra, though small, has so far played from a repertory whose variety we have no right to expect in this provincial hotel. The General's sword breathes in the dark of the coatroom, waiting for the heroic action to come. (The flavors are mango and melon.)
The Prime Minister is in the vestibule, brushing his silk hat with his sleeve. He comes each night after the cares of state have been put away. He lays them in a drawer among maps and pairs of immaculate white gloves. To be here with us requires finesse; for the nation believes he is lucubrating, not waltzing -- certainly not doing the two-step or tango with a rustling girl in his arms! A girl in a pale-yellow dress whose froufrou causes desire to rise up in his thinnest ducts. He left the ministry by the back stairs, eluded the stiffly standing military guard, tiptoed past the alleys where, since nightfall, men and women have come in search of contraband. Each night he slides a stack of crimson inflationary currency over the sill of the wire wicket, behind which a woman sits who hands him, in return, a loop of blue tickets. Always it is the same girl with whom he dances -- the one in the yellow dress, which makes a crepuscular music, she whose hair is the color of certain sunsets. Her name tonight is Lydia. (It might as easily have been Vlotka or Suzette or even just plain Sue.) It is for this the Prime Minister lives -- not for his wife or his countrymen, who pity him over their beer and sausages for his ceaseless devotion. I lift my glass to him as he passes near my table, but his mind is elsewhere -- on a diagram of the samba he is now dancing, studied intently an hour ago (a map of movement through a space hostile to gracelessness). I know what is in his mind, for inside the hotel I have the gift of omniscience. (Do not ask who gave me it. I don't know, unless it is the bottle of clearest gin, the mermaid on the swizzle stick, or the strength of my own desire.)
The Municipal Engineer drinks too much. How else is he to discover a new planet -- never mind the lineaments of a universe until now unrevealed to the mind of man? It is there, on the tip of his tongue, just as it must have been for Ptolemy, Kepler, Tycho Brahe. More chalk, he says to the waiter, who brings him a stick from behind the bar. Blue, he says; and the waiter obliges with a dimpled cube from the billiard room. The Municipal Engineer, whose imagination was seized by the Palace of Running Water in Buenos Aires at an impressionable age, is on the threshold of discovery. We are glad for him! We, too, are interested in matters outside the ordinary, now that the ordinary is past enduring. We are glad for you, Mr. Engineer! we shout. He pretends not to be affected by our adulation as he bends over the table and composes the universe in blue chalk. We hope that it will be a happier one than the one we left outside the hotel, hostile and indifferent to art. Moved by a rare sympathy, the Prime Minister offers him one of his dance tickets so that he may enter a rhapsodic phase with a pretty girl in his arms; but he declines (with what regret we cannot say), choosing, instead, the selfless rigors of creation. (I assure you, I would not have resisted -- no, not for an instant, now that the entire orchestra is awake!)
Some want to hide. Do whatever makes you happy! we tell them (we, who are also, each in our own way, in hiding). There are closets and passages in which one may conceal oneself; beds in the rooms upstairs, under which one may "lay low" for a while in perfect comfort. Some prefer to stand by the hour behind the heavy damask draperies. We take them beer and sandwiches and news of the orchestra: how the bassoonist's sore throat is progressing, whether or not the piccolo player has found her embouchure. For all are interested in the condition of the orchestra. Without it, the life of the hotel would cease and boredom -- who knows? -- drive us out into the streets again (patrolled by armor-plated machines). And should we be bereft of essential services? We have provisioned ourselves with candles; boxes of government pamphlets wait to be burned; the storerooms are amply provided with tinned sardines, peaches, and baby peas; and -- fortunately! -- the wine cellar seems, in its apparently infinite recession into the darkness, a sign of God's own largesse. The General, having renounced Clausewitz in favor of the caresses of our women (and who now would rather a polka than a Sousa march) -- he has assessed the situation. The situation, he assures us, pulling magisterially on his mustache -- the situation is brilliant; we have nothing, he insists, to fear; we can survive a siege until we are relieved by those friendly to love. And should they be delayed, we ask? The General shrugs and says, For the better part of our lives. And it is the better part that ought to concern us -- the remnant suitable only for the grave. We are cheered, for we are still young and have not exhausted the pleasures of peace. I divest the cigarette girl of her tray; and together we ride the elevator to the roof, there to share a chocolate bar and exchange our astrological signs -- mine, the Ram; hers, the Fish.
The partisans have taken the moon. This news, from the Journalist, who joined me at the bar for a gin and tonic. I was about to reply that they are welcome to it, for surely there are other moons: Io and Europa, for instance. But his crestfallen look silences me. You are a romantic, I say (pleased to find tenderness in a war correspondent). He looks fondly at the colorful bottles ranged behind the bar. Even Hemingway adored it, he says. The Spanish moon, the Cuban. Ours is being held in a trolley barn at the end of the street. I don't think it minds, he says. It must be tiresome, I reply, to be always revolving. The Journalist opens his typewriter and begins to write his story, having assured me of his objectivity. I leave him to it and take the elevator to the rooftop lounge in order to confirm with my own eyes the truth: the sky is black, there, where last night the moon shone full. What, I wonder, are their intentions toward it, the partisans? Do they mean to ransom it, perhaps; but who is there now, among the enemies of poetry and celestial mechanics, who would pay to have the moon resume its rightful place? The times are bleak, the era inhumane, the age iron and dark. I return to the ballroom and watch a while the dancers compose intricate patterns on the parquet. I go into the Mediterranean Room and see, under a tromp l'oeil moon framed by an ornate trellis, the General and the hatcheck girl embracing in the painted light.
The Fireman is unhappy. They confiscated his engine and also his fire axe. How am I to be a fireman without apparatus? he asks. We have no answer. We give him a drink instead, so that he will know we are men and women of compassion. Our best single-malt Scotch, whose smoky taste we think will please him. It does; he drinks half the bottle. We withhold censure, knowing his desolation. We, too, have plumbed it, each after our own fashion. Each has tasted the bitter herbs. Drink, we say, and then sleep. We have a room prepared for him on the topmost floor so that he may look out upon the fires, which are raging here and there within the city. Having put him to bed, we confer among ourselves how best to solace him. It would be well to have a fireman, says the Prime Minister. One can no longer depend upon the infrastructure for essential services, now that civil war has ripped the social contract to shreds. Firemen are colorful, says the Civil Engineer, who is not (except for traces of blue chalk on his sleeves). Not so colorful as Generals! asserts the General, who insists on precedence. He shows us his clocked socks. We go up and wait for the Fireman to wake. Inevitably, he does. This isn't the firehouse! he cries, bewildered. No, a hotel, and we wish to offer you the job of fireman. We show him the apparatus: the coiled hoses, the "fire bottles," the shiny axes under glass. Proudly, we point to the sprinkler heads and the smoke alarms. But where is the pole? he asks. We are embarrassed and shuffle our feet, not knowing what to say. He shakes his head dejectedly. A fireman without a pole is a sad sort of fireman. But we have other things, we tell him: cocktails and lobster bisque, chambermaids and a sauna. And imagine -- our own movie theatre! Chambermaids? he asks, clearly intrigued. Yes, and Cuban cigars. There is also an orchestra, which, though small and not always awake, plays with real fire. With fire you say? Figuratively so. And the chambermaids are pretty? We have dreamed them to be beautiful and fluent in Romance languages. We have conceived everything to our complete satisfaction. All that we lacked was a fireman, an absence which we did not realize until now. Thank you, thank you for coming to our hotel! Am I then the only hotel fireman? You are solely it, we say, sensing victory. And if I am too tired to wake in answer to the fire alarm? You may, if you like, battle the blaze in your sleep. The musicians sometimes play in theirs. I would like, he says, a cigar, a shave, and a red-haired chambermaid. You have only to wish it, for the secret ductwork of fulfillment to function sweetly. I want happiness, he says, his eyes misting. Happiness will be yours! we promise. In our hotel, happiness is granted without reservation.
We don't need a stuffed rabbit, we tell him -- not even a galvanized one. The Taxidermist persists, though we turn our backs on him. I have species that no longer exist on earth, he says. We have a collection of mechanical animals, which amuses us, we answer him -- anger flashing at the edge of our voices, because of our wish to be dancing, now that the orchestra is playing with unusual brilliance. Later, at the bar, after the orchestra has fallen asleep, we speak to him more civilly, cheered, perhaps, by the twinkling siphon bottles. What we don't have is a river. The Hydrologist, mopping his perspiring face with a bar towel, asserts: I am fabricating for you a river that will rival any in the real world -- including the Amazon and the Nile. Indignant, the General quizzes him, thus: What do you mean by "real"? That which is outside, the Hydrologist replies -- outside the hotel and which no longer concerns us. Ah! The instrumentalists wake: they were merely marshalling their orchestral forces. The General resumes the samba, which he performs with aplomb, to the accompaniment of his spurs. (He was in the cavalry!) What about fish? asks the Taxidermist, fear visible in his eyes as we are once more drawn to the dance floor. I have some remarkable examples of late 20th century fish, in attitudes that will remind you of harem girls. They are -- I assure you -- waterproof; and with this cunning motor (he takes from his pocket a stuffed mouse and, unscrewing its head, shows us a tiny device), I can make them move! The Hydrologist is delighted. An improvement over your wind-up model, he informs me with a disdain that makes me want to beat him. I agree, agrees the Building Inspector, who has, within his jurisdiction, all things mechanical, including fish. The General despises technology, preferring his antique sword to a howitzer. Wind-up fish are absolutely charming! he says, kissing the hatcheck girl on the nape of her neck. Charming! she giggles. O, go to bed! the Prime Minister screams; and they do -- at once. Welcome, the P.M. says, to our hotel! The Taxidermist bows. I look forward to seeing the happy results of your collaboration with the Hydrologist. The Hydrologist offers him his arm, and they begin to dance the polka.
The Building Inspector reports that the hotel's foundation is unsound. Unsound! we scoff. Illusory, he declares, smacking his lips. In fact, it can be said to exist in imagination only -- in the wish that it be. There are no load-bearing walls, only cleverly painted screens that shift from day to day. I suspect the building is supported by the orchestra alone, by its playing or in its sleep -- who knows? I dream of foundations, the General says, stroking his iron mustache. Foundation garments! Old rouŽ! we laugh, having long before now accepted his lasciviousness -- inevitable in a General of cavalry, as is his swagger stick. (In his youth, he luxuriated on damascene pillows in the Kasbah.) We love you, General! we cry, momentarily overcome by bonhomie. Beaming, he goes off in search of the hatcheck girl, whom he adores. We resume our discussion of the foundation. Only this morning I went to the cellar for a bottle of Gordon's Gin, I tell them. While I did not, I admit, touch them, the walls looked to me to be substantial. The Hydrologist and the Taxidermist (who are inseparable) speak next as one: We can attest to bedrock. The progress of our river construction has been slowed because of it. The Anthropologist concurs: I have discovered the fossilized record of an ancient settlement on the riverbed. I am writing a monograph, which, I have no doubt, will assure my fame. The Building Inspector, who is after all a realist, snickers: You are, all of you, living in a dream world! (We do not dispute this. But whose?) You share a common delusion. But you must know that even a building that does not exist can collapse, if it ignores the principles of construction. Or catch fire, the Fireman remarks, if not built strictly to code. I suggest I make a thorough study and report back to you next year, the Building Inspector concludes. Or the year after, we say, with a magnanimous gesture of our seigniorial hand (the one we keep for occasions just such as this, for ours is a world of pomp and circumstance). Upstairs, the General and the Hat-Check Girl embrace on the ceiling. Applauding, we commission the Hotel Photographer to record the moment "with all his art," for love soon spends itself no matter how we will it otherwise.
pieces for small orchestra