Sunday, February 8, 2009

Tangier and Cognac

He sits alone at a candlelit corner table near the window. His grey hair is short and neat, and he’s wearing a slightly rumpled beige linen suit without a tie. The restaurant is quiet, and other diners speak in hushed tones as the servers glide between the tables like ersatz ice skaters.

Scribbling in a leather-bound notebook, he writes about his life, pulling the strings of narrative together with threads exhumed from the cauldron of memory.

She accused me of writing that letter, but I’ve sworn over and over that I didn’t write it, and never could have,” he writes, his spidery handwriting slanting, as always, to the left.

I was in North Africa at the time, and Dad and I hadn’t even spoken in more than a year. She dismissed my alibi and said that I simply could have mailed it to a friend and had the friend post it to Dad’s address.” He takes a sip of wine.

When they sent the telegram to tell me of Dad’s suicide, I was as shocked as everyone else. I never expected it, and still swear that I had nothing to do with that letter. It was a cruel letter filled with vitriol and hatred, and even though I despised the man, my modus operandi was to simply ignore him, and I did that successfully for years on end.”

The waitress brings the check, but he looks up at her, requesting a cup of coffee, a glass of cognac, and a slice of chocolate cake.

Dad was cruel. We all admit that,” he continues. “The years we spent holed away in Manitoba, cut off from family and friends---those were hard times. Being forced to learn how to butcher what he brought home after a day of hunting in the hills was nothing short of traumatizing, and his punishments---like being pushed into the lake through a hole in the ice---were like something from a novel, a Dickensian nightmare. When I read ‘The Beans of Egypt, Maine’, I thought that our years in Manitoba were like a cross between the Beans and ‘Deliverance’, and I’m not trying to be funny here.”

The cognac, coffee and chocolate cake arrive, and his pen is laid to rest as he tastes the sweet pungency of the cognac followed by a sip of the dark coffee. The chocolate cake is moist and slightly warm, with a very faint flavor of lavender.

He continues. “I was in Tangier when that telegram arrived to my hotel. The concierge waved to me as I crossed the shabby lobby, calling me over. ‘Monseuir, un telegramme pour vous.’ I was taken aback, and went out onto the front veranda before opening the blue and yellow envelope.

After I had read the brief message, I sat on the woven chair, frozen with shock, somewhat relieved, and utterly alone. Vendors, Bedouins and women on the way to market streamed by the hotel veranda, and the call to prayer wafted above the medina in its inimitable, ghostly way. I saw the call to prayer as a personal invitation for me to mourn my father’s passing and allow his spirit to leave this earth unencumbered by the avarice and resentment of his children.”

He finishes the cognac, takes a final bite of cake, and follows it with some lukewarm coffee, somewhat disappointing after the intensity of the cognac and the sweet bitterness of the chocolate.

Sitting on that veranda in colorful and alien Tangier, reeling from the news but also somewhat numb, I neatly folded the telegram, tucking it into my back pocket. After a few moments of watching the donkeys, carts, and vendors streaming into the medina for the day’s eager commerce, I, too, strolled unhurriedly into the crowded medina, intent on using forgetfulness as my greatest asset and ally.”

He pays the check in cash, leaves a generous tip, and exits the restaurant into the snowy street. Thinking about those days in Tangier, the estrangement from his father and his father’s self-inflicted death, a feeling of profound loneliness and isolation seeps into his bones. Taking out his cell phone, he dials a number he hasn’t dialed in years……..

(c) 2009, NurseKeith