|GATOR SPRINGS GAZETTE|
a literary journal of the fictional persuasion
|ARE WE THERE YET?(page five)|
|Fiction Contest Winner – Second Place
A GLASS OF WINE by Richard Madelin
Truth be told, the whole of the country rested on El Presidente’s shoulders. In this blessed land of ours, it was he who caused the birds to sing, the rivers to flow, and the sun to shine. It was he who scolded us, blessed us, took away our sins, looked over us as his children.
But on this morning of mornings, when El Presidente sat up in bed and coughed to expel the vapours of the night from his lungs, sadly his larynx locked solid and the presidential breath would not come.
El Presidente put a hand to his mouth. The hand that had touched so many of us in so many ways could do nothing at all. El Presidente was trapped between this world and the next.
El Presidente pushed a button to summon help. As he waited, as so often happens at times like this, the whole of his life passed before him. Not usually one for introspection, on this morning of mornings, he tried to utter his maker’s name but was unable to disgorge it.
El Presidente grabbed a pillow and pushed it against his throat. Alas, this was useless, and the gagging only reinforced his understanding of what mortality really is.
Help was soon at hand. A girl ran into the room. She saw what had happened but could say nothing. She was mute. That was what the president wanted with the women in the palace, who were prattlers if left to their own devices. The girl looked at El Presidente and signified her distress in the only way she could, with sensuous hand signals, gestures that at other moments might be the precursors to presidential pleasure.
The girl, in her country wisdom, knew that what had happened was a curse, the work of an evil god she had courted for all the time she had been there. She fluffed a pillow, bent to El Presidente to show him a glimpse of her breasts, put her knee on the bed and pulled back her skirt to reveal her thigh. It was something she had ached to do for a long time, to show the President what he could no longer have.
El Presidente stayed stricken in mid cough. Light did not stir through the windows. Birds refused to sing. The telephones were silent. But the girl sang in her throat, a song with no sound, a song with no words, a song to gladden her heart.
By mid morning the palace curtains remained drawn, the heavy gates closed. The armed soldiers who guarded the entrance were still in the guardhouse smoking and talking of women. The supplicants who waited outside tried to convince each other that whatever had happened could only be a good sign for them. These poor people, sad people, were always looking for a sign, something that would show them that El Presidente held them dear in his heart.
El Presidente’s physician sat on the bed and placed his bag at his feet. He shrugged, took a spatula from his top pocket, and leaned forward to insert it gently into El Presidente’s mouth. El Presidente knocked his hand away.
The physician stood up. He was not afraid of the president. Each time he saw El Presidente he reminded him in gentle and subtle ways of his mortality. El Presidente respected the physician for what he called his honesty but the physician knew that such honesty had a price and was always, always paid.
By mid afternoon El Presidente had left his bed. The palace curtains were still drawn, the heavy gates remained closed. Still he could not speak, still his throat was frozen, but affairs of state beckoned. What did it matter that El Presidente was stricken between life and death? He had a duty to his people. Already far off he could hear the guns of his enemies, those traitors, those devils who at the first chance would seek to disrupt this blessed country.
The lecturer of political theory woke with a start, sat up, and reached for the glass of water on the table. He had a thirst that was reawakened this morning from the night before, a night spent in earnest discussion about the virus that was sweeping the country, leaving no one untouched.
He remembered wine that had tasted of piss, bottles emptied, resolutions passed, and the duty that beckoned. But he knew he was nothing in all this. He was merely a pawn who must do what history said he had to do. A headache was a trifle in the sweep of great affairs. Bad wine could curdle the best of ideas but the dialectic underpinned them all.
The lecturer had a class at the university, students to teach, young people who had a thirst for knowledge, who clamoured to transform this knowledge into action, who yearned to go into the streets to lift the yoke off of their poor benighted country.
The lecturer stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom. He stroked his chin. He would not shave. He pushed his fingers through his hair, stepped back, and considered what he saw. Truly he was a man with a cause.
And it was only then, when he had taken hold of his toothbrush, did he realise that something was different from other days. He heard no noise outside, no bustle in the city. Again he pushed his fingers through his hair, but slower this time. Was this it, he asked himself, was this morning the morning of all mornings? A green lizard scuttled along the edge of the sink, lifted its head, and stared at him. The lecturer looked at himself again in the mirror. What I am is what I am, he said softly to himself.
The lecturer dressed and went outside to his bicycle. He had to ride fast to be at his class on time. He stood up and pedalled hard. The dialectic would wait for no man. As he rode through the streets, through the silence, he meditated on the man he hated most in the world. He saw him from time to time as the man’s big car pushed through the crowd, as he waved to his people. Soon, for sure, the time would come when El Presidente would have to atone for all his sins.
The lecturer rode through the speckled shadows of trees up the wide boulevard that went straight towards the centre of the city. Sun then shade, sun then shade. This was the dialectic, he thought. People were never enlightened by words. They were taught by events.
He pedalled past the big heavy locked gates of the palace. Why were the gates locked? What was this silence? He thought of the president with a gun to his head. No need to ponder, to allow last words, confessions, redemption. Change everything with just one shot. But how could such a thing be done? Never had there been a way.
In the palace communications room, El Presidente sat with big eyes, his jaw jutting. He was unable to speak so he wrote messages, orders to be sent to shore up his hold on the country. As always, the telegraph officer sent these messages out, but they no longer made sense. No single order had the edge, the precision of earlier days, the simple, clipped words that told of lives to be dispatched, villages to be burned, supplies to be diverted. The words were scrambled, but the telegraph officer did what he was told.
Messages were sent to all parts of the country, words on the wires, transferred to pieces of paper, to people who were waiting, people who sat in offices and huts, in railway stations, in village squares. The people who received these messages shook their heads, but they could do nothing. They had no vocabulary in their language for unusual events. It was taken from them many decades before.
Time passed as it always does, the days went by, and things began to fall apart. As in all such situations, the falling apart took its heaviest toll on the poor people, those who felt the full force of the hammer. The Heavenly Field of Crosses, a patch of earth close to the city centre, was visited more than it had ever been. Men, women, and children came and asked the crosskeepers to nail them to the crosses, impale a hand, an ear, a leg. And then as the blood flowed, they waited. They believed waiting was always its own reward in the eyes of the Redeemer, and blood given was always stored for them many times over in heaven.
The lecturer cycled to the university, passed the palace each day. One day the guards were there and then the next day they were gone. The day after the big gates were open. But he did not stop. He had things to do.
The lecturer lectured in a room with the sun on his face, wrote words in chalk on a board. The students were all present. It would be more than they would think of to stay away at a time like this. History was singing its song.
But the words that came out of the lecturer’s mouth were not the only words in his head. The words in his head were bigger now, they shone, and they had many other unspoken words that reflected off them. These words were deadly. With one word he could slay a man, whether that man be a soldier, a politician, or a president.
El Presidente sat and waited for something he knew had to come to him. He had been waiting for a long time. He felt a pain, such a pain as he had never felt before. He told himself that this was not his pain but the pain of his people, but he knew in his heart of hearts that his time had come. He had to abandon everything he held dear, the people who loved him more than life itself, the people who would flounder without his care.
El Presidente summoned his physician and wrote on a scrap of paper, demanded pills that would give him final rest. The physician shrugged and backed away. El Presidente tried to follow him; but the cocked posture of his body, the rictus of his affliction, prevented him from doing so. So he sat in his chair, and he waited for what was going to happen.
The lecturer lectured. The city had never been more silent. It shivered waiting, like still water stirred by a breeze. And one day, as he cycled home in the warm evening sun, the lecturer knew his time had come. The voice of the people was calling, their stifled cries from the huts and the tenements, the bars, the bodegas, and the villages and the forests beyond.
What is cause and what is effect? The physician paced in his room in the palace, waiting, and he pondered this question. He knew that El Presidente’s affliction was something that could not be explained by medical science. It was attributable to the soul, that realm of metaphor and allusion, and it was accounted for only in dark and subtle ways. It was beyond him. He was a simple man, attached to the material world. He had packed his bag. He was waiting for his car. He had a plane to catch, a light plane, on a small airstrip, outlined with flares. It was a small price to pay.
El Presidente sat in the empty palace and waited for culmination. He was not much given to introspection. He was a decorated man of action. But now he was haunted by the ghosts of his forefathers, spirits who came and went. He did not think of the men he had killed, the atrocities, the famines, the suffering he had perpetrated on his people. After all he was their father, a father who had always had the welfare of his children clutched close to his heart. Their suffering was unavoidable. Would he not have removed it if this were not so?
El Presidente thought of his affliction. He wanted a quick, noble death, befitting a soldier, one that would endear him to his country. He wanted a monument to the man he had been. But in his heart of hearts, that heart inside the others, the one that could not be fooled, he knew he wanted to live forever, to stay alive on any terms whatsoever. He would cling with his fingernails to the edge of the precipice. There was always hope, he thought.
The lecturer cycled home but on this evening he stopped at a place he knew well, a bar that smelled of rancid wine and stale tobacco, where a cockerel strutted and pecked, where empty bottles littered the floor, a latrine overflowed into the yard. He tipped his head to the barman and went to the back of the bar.
Here he put his hand into a hole in the wall and pulled out a weapon, a revolver that had seen better days. It felt good in his hand, had a heft that indicated purposefulness, knowledge transformed into action. He shoved it under his shirt and cycled off.
The lecturer stopped at the palace gates and dismounted. He wheeled his bicycle inside, propped it against the wall, and took off his cycle clips. No one challenged him. He had talked of such a time in the bar with his friends many nights. They had sipped their wine and argued, but whatever was said, they were sure this time would come. A pity they could not join him, but the lecturer knew that the dialectic was not fully understood by all. There were signs to be deciphered and he was the man to do this, in the right place, at the right time.
He was angered by the prosaic ordinariness of the palace, the garden of earth hammered flat by the sun, crumbling palm trees, a dry fountain. No display of opulence here. And no looting, no torn curtains, no disarray. He looked for guards, for dogs, but saw and heard nothing. He held the gun as if he meant it, pointed it, but if the truth were known, he could not get used to it.
He walked around to the back of the palace and opened one half of a high doubled door into a big room. He saw a wooden floor, a mirrored ball, glass on the walls. As he passed through this room he was confronted by his reflection, a man with a gun, many, many times. He told himself this had no meaning at all.
He walked down a corridor and into another corridor. He pointed the gun but there was no way to shoot at the silence of the place, to get rid of it with a bullet. He knew, he had read often, that change could be bloody, but sometimes it could be as quiet as a country that was sleeping, as if no one wanted to know. Such a change he thought would be unsettling. You would never know when it had finished, nor even when it had begun.
He kept going because he believed that he was a man of destiny. He might be but a finger on the trigger of history, but of all people, he was the one. He held the gun as tight as he could. History or not, the next few minutes would be his.
He passed a table where guards sat playing cards. When they saw him they shrugged and one man dealt more cards. Another man hawked and spat, but such an action had nothing to do with change, politics or revolution. The man was merely clearing his throat.
El Presidente sat in a high backed chair. He looked down at his hands, their blue veined maps. All the intricacies of his life were there. He tried to cough but the rictus remained. Was there a narrow blue line with an aberration that showed this?
The lecturer opened the door and walked into the room. He saw El Presidente. He walked quickly, he was no fool, and he placed the barrel of the gun against El Presidente’s forehead. Was it not apt, he thought, how the barrel of a gun against the forehead of El Presidente was held by a man who had lectured on political theory? Was it not apt how these two men met and the linchpin slotted into place?
The lecturer, of course, had a perfectly reasonable explanation. This was going to happen, it was going to happen all along. It had to. The dialectic rules.
El Presidente sat in his high backed chair. He saw the man with the gun enter the room. Another man might have been glad to have seen such a sight, glad that his suffering would soon be over. But El Presidente was not such a man. He felt the gun against his forehead. It would not end this way. It could not. He knew too much for it to happen like this.
The lecturer had his finger on the trigger of the gun. It was a small thing, the trigger, another small thing his finger on it, but the noise of it would resound and resound in the days, the weeks, the years, to come.
El Presidente moved his head back, away from the barrel of the gun. The gun followed. The lecturer looked down at El Presidente’s hands. He looked into El Presidente’s face. He saw the rictus, the seizure that had overtaken him, and he saw the pain. El Presidente tried to smile, but it was not a smile. His predicament curdled it to a grimace. When he used to smile people had been afraid. Now it was as if his smile could be seen for what it was.
The lecturer looked into El Presidente’s eyes and he saw the depth of his suffering. He knew he had to kill him, it was destiny. Yet the suffering attracted him. The lecturer thought about how it was in his hands to protract what the President felt. He knew it was a regressive and reactionary thought, but it would not go from his head.
El Presidente smiled his rictus smile and looked down at his shitty trousers. His smile had captured the whole of his body. The lecturer touched the trigger but he would have to squeeze harder than that.
Time passed, many days, many weeks. The lecturer trudged each day down to the cellars and carried up cans of soup from a store of goods, put away for such a time. He opened two cans, one for El Presidente, one for himself. Country vegetable soup, game, mulligatawny, asparagus. He heated them on a small stove. El Presidente was most partial to asparagus.
The lecturer poured hot soup into a porcelain bowl decorated with the presidential crest. He took the bowl into El Presidente’s room, placed it on a table, and when it was cool enough, he picked up a spoon. He put his hand onto the shoulder of the old man and he placed the spoon against his lips. Then he tipped the spoon and allowed the liquid to run slowly down his throat. A small spot trickled from El Presidente’s lips onto his chin. The lecturer wiped it with the cloth he kept for this purpose, and as he did it, he looked for signs of pain. After all, this was what it meant to him. He did not do it for sentimental reasons.
Sometimes the lecturer put an old record on the gramophone, Glen Miller’s ‘In the Mood’. It was the one the old man liked most of all. Sometimes the old man’s hand moved, jerked, against the rhythm. The lecturer hated himself for this. Sometimes the lecturer looked deep into the old man’s eyes. Something must be reflected there, he thought, of what had been done to the country.
Whenever the lecturer when down to the cellar he looked at the bottles of wine that were stored there. The finest of wines for the presidential palate. But he did not touch them.
But then one evening he eased a bottle of wine out of a rack, rubbed off the dust, looked at the label, and carried it upstairs. The cork came out with a sigh. He poured the wine, just to see how it poured, red liquid into the glass, just the swirl of it and the smell. He sipped it just to see how it tasted, the taste on his tongue. Then he poured another glass.
The old man could not lift it, and so the lecturer lifted it for him, put the glass to his lips. Liquid dribbled down the old man’s chin. It was only a gesture, something the lecturer wanted to do, something for which there was no reason at all.
The lecturer emptied his glass and poured himself another. It was a good wine, one that reflected the fruits of the labour of the people of the country, one that reflected the soil, the climate, the sun that poured down. All in all, the lecturer mused, the wine was an apt metaphor for all that was noble about the country. You could have tyrants, you could have oppression, but still you had to admire the honest work of the people. He went down to the cellar and took out another bottle, one of the same vintage, opened it upstairs, and poured again.
Outside it was another quiet evening but for the first time a car could be heard, a bird singing its sad nighttime song, a raised voice, the clink of a glass, somewhere a telephone rang once and then stopped.
‘Salud’, the lecturer said, and took a sip of the wine. Then he kissed the old man on the cheek, wiped his chin gently with the tips of his fingers.
© Richard Madelin 2004
Richard Madelin (email@example.com) has been published in London Magazine, PIF, The Guardian, Night Train, Literary Potpourri, Ink Pot, Painted Moon Review, and anthologized in Heinemann's Best Short Stories. His short stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio Four and his novel, Careful! was published by Ig of Brooklyn in June 2004
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