Last Worders" was originally published in LCRW
was asleep in the dining car when the train arrived in San Margais.
It was tempting to just leave her behind, and I tried to tell
myself this wasn’t a mean thought, but came to me because
I, myself, might want to be left like that, just for the adventure
of it. I might want to wake up hours later and miles away, bewildered
and alone. I am always on the lookout for those parts of my
life that could be the first scene in a movie. Of course, you
could start a movie anywhere, but you wouldn’t; that’s
my point. And so this impulse had nothing to do with the way
Charlotta had begun to get on my last nerve. That’s my
other point. If I thought being ditched would be sort of exciting,
then so did Charlotta. We felt the same about everything.
I said. “Charlotta. We’re here.” I was on
my feet, grabbing my backpack, when the train actually stopped.
This threw me into the arms of a boy of about fourteen, wearing
a T-shirt from the Three Mountains Soccer Camp. It was nice
of him to catch me. I probably wouldn’t have done that
when I was fourteen. What’s one tourist more or less?
I tried to say some of this to Charlotta when we were on the
platform and the train was already puffing fainter and fainter
in the distance, winding its way like a great worm up into the
Rambles Mountains. The boy hadn’t gotten off with us.
It was raining and we tented
our heads with our jackets. “He was probably picking your
pocket,” Charlotta said. “Do you still have your
wallet?” Which made me feel I’d been a fool, but
when I put my hand in to check I found, instead of taking something
out, he’d put something in. I pulled out an orange piece
of paper folded like a fan. When opened, flattened, it was a
flier in four languages—German, Japanese, French, and
English. Open mike, the English part said. And then,
Come to the Last Word Cafe. 100 Ruta de los Esclavos by the
river. First drink free. Poetry Slam. To the death.
The rain erased the words
even as we read them.
“No city listed,”
Charlotta noted. She had taken the paper from me to look more
closely. Now it was blank and limp. She refolded it, carefully
so it wouldn’t tear, put it in the back pocket of her
pants. “Anyway, can’t be here.”
The town of San Margais
hangs on the edge of a deep chasm. There’d been a river
once. We had a geological witness. We had the historical records.
But there was no river now.
“And no date for
the slam,” Charlotta added. “And we don’t
think fast on our feet. And death. That’s not very appealing.”
If she’d made only
one objection, then she’d no interest. Ditto if she’d
made two. But three was defensive; four was obsessive. Four
meant that if Charlotta could ever find the Last Word Cafe,
she was definitely going. Just because I’d been invited
and she hadn’t. Try to keep her out! I know this is what
she felt because it’s what I would have felt.
We took a room in a private
house on the edge of the gorge. We had planned to lodge in the
city center, more convenient to everything, but we were tired
and wanted to get in out of the rain. The guidebook said this
place was cheap and clean.
It was ten-thirty in the
morning and the proprietress was still in her nightgown. She
was a woman of about fifty and the loss of her two front teeth
had left a small dip in her upper lip. Her nightgown was imprinted
with angels wearing choir robes and haloes on sticks like balloons.
She spoke little English; there was a lot of pointing, most
of it upwards. Then we had to follow her angel butt up three
flights of ladders, hauling our heavy packs. The room was large
and had its own sink. There were glass doors opening onto a
balcony, rain sheeting down. If you looked out there was nothing
to see. Steep nothing. Gray nothing. The dizzying null of the
gorge. “You can have the bed by the doors,” Charlotta
offered. She was already moved in, toweling her hair.
“You,” I said.
I was nobody’s fool.
Charlotta sang. “It
is scary, in my aerie.”
proprietress asked. Her dimpled lip curled slightly. She didn’t
have to speak the language to know bad poetry when she heard
it, that lip said.
said. “Yes. The Last Word Cafe? Is where?”
“No,” she answered.
Maybe she’d misunderstood us. Maybe we’d misunderstood
* * *
A few facts about the gorge: The gorge is
very deep and very narrow. A thousand years ago a staircase
was cut into the interior of the cliff. According to our guidebook
there are 839 stone steps, all worn smooth by traffic. Back
when the stairs were made, there was still a river. Slaves carried
water from the river up the stairs to the town. They did this
all day long, down with an empty clay pitcher, up with a full
one, and then different slaves carried water all during the
night. The slave owners were noted for their poetry and their
cleanliness. They wrote formal erotic poems about how dirty
their slaves were.
One day there was an uprising.
The slaves on the stairs knew nothing about it. They had their
pitchers. They had the long way down and the longer way up.
Slaves from the town, ex-slaves now, stood at the top
and told each one as he (or she) arrived, that he (or she) was
free. Some of the slaves poured their water out onto the stone
steps to prove this to themselves. Some emptied their pitchers
into the cistern as usual, thinking to have a nice bath later.
Later all the pitchers were given to the former slave owners
who now were slaves and had to carry water up from the river
all day or all night.
Still later there was resentment
between the town slaves, who had taken all the risks and made
all the plans, and the stair slaves who were handed their freedom.
The least grateful of the latter were sent back to the stairs.
Two or three hundred years
after the uprising, there was no more water. Over many generations
the slaves had finally emptied the river. To honor their long
labors, in memory of a job well done, slavery was abolished
in San Margais. There is a holiday to commemorate this every
year on May 21. May 21 is also our birthday, mine and Charlotta’s.
Let’s not make too much of that.
Among the many factions
in San Margais was one that felt there was nothing to celebrate
in having once had a river and now not having one. Many bitter
poems have been written on this subject, all entitled “May
* * *
The shower in our pensione
was excellent, the water hot and hard. Charlotta reported this
to me. Since I got my choice of bed, she got the first shower.
We’d been making these sorts of calculations all our lives;
it kept us in balance. As long as everyone played. We were not
in San Margais for the poetry.
Five years before, while
we were still in high school, Charlotta and I had fallen in
love with the same boy. His name was Raphael Kaplinsky. He had
an accent, South African, and a motorcycle, American. “I
saw him first,” Charlotta said, which was true—he
was in her second period World Lit class. I hadn’t seen
him until fifth period Chemistry.
I spoke to him first, though.
“Is it supposed to be this color?” I’d asked
when we were testing for acids.
“He spoke to me first,”
Charlotta said, which was also true since he’d answered
my acid question with a shrug. And then, several days later,
said “Nice boots!” to Charlotta when she came to
school in calf-high red Steve Maddens.
My red Steve Maddens.
We quarreled about Raphael
for weeks without settling anything. We didn’t speak to
each other for days at a time. All the while Raphael dated other
girls. Loose and easy Deirdre. Bookish Kathy. Spiritual, ethereal
Nina. Junco, the Japanese foreign exchange student.
Eventually Charlotta and
I agreed that we would both give Raphael up. Charlotta made
the offer, but I’d been planning the same; I matched it
instantly. There was simply no other way. We met in the yard
to formalize the agreement with a ceremony. Each of us wrote
the words Ms. Raphael Weldon-Kaplinsky onto a piece of paper.
Then we simultaneously tore our papers into twelve little bits.
We threw the bits into the fishpond and watched the carp eat
I knew that Charlotta would
honor our agreement. I knew this because I intended to do so.
* * *
When we were little, when
we were just learning to talk, Mother says Charlotta and I had
a secret language. She could watch us, towheaded two-year-olds,
talking to each other and she could tell that we knew what we
were saying, even if she didn’t. Sometimes after telling
each other a long story, we would cry. One of us would start
and the other would sit struggling for a moment, lip trembling,
and eventually we would both be in tears. There was a graduate
student in psychology interested in studying this, but we learned
English and stopped speaking our secret language before he could
get his grant money together.
Mother favors Charlotta.
I’m not the only one to think so; Charlotta sees it, too.
Mother has learned that it’s simply not possible to treat
two people with equal love. She would argue that she favors
us both—sometimes Charlotta, sometimes me. She would say
it all equals out in the end. Maybe she’s right. It isn’t
equal yet, but it probably hasn’t ended.
* * *
Some facts from our guidebook
about the San Margais Civil War. 1932-37: The underlying issues
were aesthetic and economic. The trigger was an assassination.
In the middle ages, San
Margais was a city-state ruled by a hereditary clergy. Even
after annexation, the clergy played the dominant political role.
Fra Nando came to power in the 1920s during an important poetic
revival known as the Margais Movement. Its premiere voice was
the great epistemological poet, Gigo. Fra Nando believed in
the lessons of history. Gigo believed in the natural cadence
of the street, the impenetrable nature of truth. From Day One
these two were headed for a showdown.
Still, for a few years,
all was politeness. Gigo received many grants and honors from
the Nando regime. She was given a commission to write a poem
celebrating Fra Nando’s seventieth birthday. “Yes,
I remember,” Gigo’s poem begins (in translation),
“the great cloud of dragonflies grazing the lake ...”
If Fra Nando’s name appeared only in the dedication, at
least this was accessible stuff. Nostalgic even, elegiac.
Gigo was never nostalgic.
Gigo was never elegiac. To be so now expressed only her deep
contempt for Fra Nando, but it was all so very rhythmical; he
was completely taken in. Fra Nando set the first two lines in
stone over the entrance to the city-state library and invited
Gigo to be his special guest at the unveiling.
“The nature of the
word is not the nature of the stone,” Gigo said at the
ceremony when it was her turn to speak. This was also accessible.
Fra Nando went red in the face as if he’d been slapped,
one hand to each cheek.
A cartel of businessmen,
angry over the graduated tariff system Nando had instituted,
saw the opportunity to assassinate him and have the poets blamed.
Gigo was killed at a reading the same night Fra Nando was laid
in state in the Catedral Nacionales. Her last words were “blind
hill, grave glass,” which is all anyone could have hoped.
Unless she said “grave grass,” and one of her acolytes
changed her words in the reporting as her detractors have alleged.
Anyone could think up grave grass, especially if they were dying
at the time.
All that remains for certain
of Gigo’s work are the contemptuous two lines in stone.
The Margais Movement was outlawed, its poems systematically
searched out and destroyed. Attempts were made to memorize the
greatest of Gigo’s verses, but these had been written
so as to defy memorization. A phrase here and there, much contested,
survives. Nothing that suggests genius. All the books by or
about the Margais Movement were burned. All the poets were imprisoned
and tortured until they couldn’t remember their own names
much less their own words.
There is a narrow bridge
across the gorge that Charlotta can see from the doors by her
bed. During the civil war, people were thrown from the bridge.
There is still a handful of old men and old women here who will
tell you they remember seeing that.
* * *
Raphael Kaplinsky went
to our high school for only one year. We told ourselves it was
good we hadn’t destroyed our relationship for so short
a reward. We dated other boys, boys neither of us liked. The
flaws in our reasoning began to come clear.
1) Raphael Kaplinsky was
ardent and oracular. You didn’t meet a boy like Raphael
Kaplinsky in every World Lit, every Chemistry Class you took.
He was the very first person to use the word later to end a
conversation. Using the word later in this particular way was
a promise. It was nothing less than messianic.
2) What if we did, someday,
meet a boy we liked as much as Raphael? We were both bound to
like him exactly the same. We hadn’t solved our problem
so much as delayed it. We were doomed to a lifetime of each-otherness
unless we came up with a different plan.
We hired an internet detective
to find Raphael and he uncovered a recent credit card trail.
We had followed this trail all the way to last Sunday in San
Margais. We had come to San Margais to make him choose between
* * *
It was raining too hard
to go out, plus we’d spent the night sitting up on the
train. We hadn’t been able to sit together, and had had
a drunk on one side (Charlotta’s) and a shoebox of mice
on the other (mine). The mice were headed to the Snake Pit at
the State Zoo. There was no way to sleep while their little
paws scrabbled desperately, fruitlessly against the cardboard.
I had an impulse to set them free, but it seemed unfair to the
snakes. How often in this world we are unwillingly forced to
take sides! Team Mouse or Team Snake? Team Fly or Team Spider?
Charlotta and I napped
during the afternoon while the glass rattled in the doorframes
and the rain fell. I woke up when I was too hungry to sleep.
“I have got to have something to eat,” Charlotta
* * *
The cuisine of San Margais
is nothing to write home about. Charlotta and I each bought
an umbrella from a street peddler and ate in a small, dark pizzeria.
It was not only wet outside, but cold. The pizzeria had a large
oven, which made the room pleasant to linger in, even though
there was a group of Italian tourists smoking across the way.
Charlotta and I had a policy
never to order the same thing off a menu. This was hard, because
the same thing always sounded good to both of us, but it doubled
our chances of making the right choice. Charlotta ordered a
pizza called El Diablo, which was all theater and annoyed me,
as we don’t like hot foods. El Diablo brought tears to
her eyes and she only ate one piece, picking the olives off
the rest and then helping herself to several slices of mine.
She wiped her face with
a napkin, which left a rakish streak of pizza sauce on her cheek.
I was irritated enough to say nothing about this. One of the
Italians made his way to our table. “So,” he said
with no preliminaries. “American, yes? I can kiss you?”
We were nothing if not
patriots. Charlotta stood at once, moved into his arms, and
I saw his tongue go into her mouth. They kissed for several
seconds, then Charlotta pushed him away and now the pizza sauce
was on him.
“So,” she said.
“Now. We need directions to the closest internet cafe.”
The Italian drew a map
on her place mat. He drew well; his map had depth and perspective.
The internet cafe appeared to be around many corners and up
many flights of stairs. The Italian decorated his map with hopeful
little hearts. Charlotta took it away from him or there surely
would have been more of these.
* * *
The San Margais miracle,
an anecdotal account:
About ten years ago, a
little boy named Bastien Brunelle was crossing the central plaza
when he noticed something strange on the face of the statue
of Fra Nando. He looked more closely. Fra Nando was crying large
milky tears. Bastien ran home to tell his parents.
The night before, Bastien’s
father had had a dream. In his dream he was old and crippled,
twisted up like a licorice stick. In his dream he had a dream
that told him to go and bathe in the river. He woke from the
dream dream and made his slow, painful way down the 839 steps.
At the bottom of the gorge he waited. He heard a noise in the
distance, cars on a freeway. The river arrived like a train
and stopped to let him in. Bastien’s father woke up and
was thirty-two again, which was his proper age.
When he heard about the
statue, Bastien’s father remembered the dream. He followed
Bastien out to the square where a crowd was gathering, growing.
“Fra Nando is crying for the river,” Bastien’s
father told the crowd. “It’s a sign to us. We have
to put the river back.”
had never been a community leader. He ran a small civil war
museum for tourists, filled with faked Gigo poems, and rarely
bought a round for the house when he went out drinking. But
now he had all the conviction of the man who sees clearly amidst
the men who are confused. He organized a brigade to carry water
down the steps to the bottom of the gorge and his purpose was
so absolute, so inspired were his words, that people volunteered
their spare hours, their children’s spare hours. They
signed up for slots in his schedule and carried water down the
stairs for almost a week before they all lost interest and remembered
Bastien’s father was not the mouth of God, but a tightassed
By this time news of the
crying statue had gone out on the internet. Scientists had performed
examinations. “Fakery cannot be ruled out,” one
said, which transformed into the headline, “No Sign of
Fakery.” Pilgrims began to arrive from wealthy European
countries, mostly college kids with buckets, thermoses, used
Starbucks cups. They would stay two or three days, two or three
weeks, hauling water down, having visions on the stairs and
And then that ended, too.
Every time has its task. Ours is to digitalize the world’s
libraries. This is a big job that will take generations to complete,
like the pyramids. No time for filling gorges with water. “Live
lightly on the earth,” the pilgrims remembered. “Leave
no footprint behind.” And they all went home again, or
at least they left San Margais.
* * *
On odd days of the week
our people-finder detective emailed Charlotta and copied me.
On even, the opposite. Two days earlier Raphael had bought a
hat and four postcards. He had dinner at a pricey restaurante
and got a fifty-dollar cash advance. That was Charlotta’s
Mine said that this very
night, he was buying fifteen beers at the Last Word Cafe, San
We googled that name to
a single entry. 100 Ruta de los Esclavos by the river, it
said. Open mike. Under-ground music and poetry nightly.
There were other Americans
using the computers. I walked through, asking if any of them
knew how to get to the Last Word Cafe. To Ruta de los Esclavos?
They were paying by the minute. Most of them didn’t look
up. Those that did shook their heads.
Charlotta and I opened
our umbrellas and went back out into the rain. We asked directions
from everyone we saw, but very few people were on the street.
They didn’t know English or they disliked being accosted
by tourists or they didn’t like the look of our face.
They hurried by without speaking. Only a single woman stopped.
She took my chin in her hand to make sure she had my full attention.
Her eyes were tinged in yellow and she smelled like Irish Spring
soap. “No,” she said firmly. “Me entiendes?
No for you.”
We walked along the gorge,
because this was the closest thing San Margais had to a river.
On one side of us, the town. The big yellow I of Tourist Information
(closed indefinitely), shops of ceramics and cheeses, postcards,
law offices, podiatrists, pubs, our own pensione. On the other
the cliff-face, the air. We crossed the narrow bridge and when
we came to the 839 steps we started down them just because they
were mostly inside the cliff and therefore covered and therefore
dry. I was the one to point these things out to Charlotta. I
was the one to say we should go down.
The steps were smooth and
slippery. Each one had a dip in the center in just that place
where a slave was most likely to put his (or her) foot. Water
dripped from the walls around us, but we were able to close
our umbrellas, leave them at the top to be picked up later.
For the first stretch there were lights overhead. Then we were
in darkness, except for an occasional turn, which brought an
occasional opening to the outside. A little light could carry
us a long way.
We descended maybe 300
steps and then, by one of the openings, we met an American coming
up. In age she was somewhere in that long unidentifiable stretch
from twenty-two to thirty-five. She was carrying an empty bucket,
plastic, the sort a child takes to the seashore. She was breathless
from the climb.
She stopped beside us and
we waited until she was able to speak. “What the fuck,”
she said finally, “is the point of going down empty-handed?
What the fuck is the point of you?”
Charlotta had been asking
sort of the same thing. What was the point of going all the
way down the stairs? Why had she let me talk her into it? She
talked me into going back. We turned and followed the angry
American up and out into the rain. It was only 300 steps, but
when we’d done them we were winded and exhausted. We went
to our room, crawled up our three ladders, and landed in a deep,
It was still raining the
next morning. We went to the city center and breakfasted in
a little bakery. Just as we were finishing, our Italian walked
in. “We kiss more, yes?” he asked me. He’d
mistaken me for Charlotta. I stood up. I was always having to
do her chores. His tongue ranged through my mouth as if he were
looked for scraps. I tasted cigarettes, gum, things left in
“So,” I said,
pushing him away. “Now. We need directions to the Last
And it turned out we’d
almost gotten there last night, after all. The Last Word was
the last stop along the 839 steps. It seemed as if I’d
Our Italian said he’d
been the night before. No one named Raphael had taken the mic;
he was sure of this, but he thought there might have been a
South African at the bar. Possibly this South African had bought
him a drink. It was a very crowded room. No one had died. That
was just—how is it we Americans say? Poem license?
wanted to get the feel of the place before he spoke,”
Charlotta said. “That’s what I’d do.”
And me. That’s what
I’d do, too.
* * *
There was no point in going
back before dark. We checked our email, but he was apparently
still living on the cash advance; nothing had been added since
the Last Word last night. We decided to spend the day as tourists,
thinking Raphael might do the same. Because of the rain we had
the outdoor sights mostly to ourselves. We saw the ruins of
the old baths, long and narrow as lap pools, now with nets of
morning glories twisted across them. Here and there the rain
had filled them.
There was a Roman arch,
a Moorish garden. When we were wetter than we could bear to
be we paid the eight euros entrance to the civil war museum.
English translation was extra, but we were on a budget; there
are no bargains on last-minute tickets to San Margais. We told
ourselves it was more in keeping with the spirit of Gigo if
we didn’t understand a thing.
The museum was small, two
rooms only and dimly lit. We stood awhile beside the wall radiator,
drying out and warming up. Even from that spot we could see
most of the room we were in. There were three life-size dioramas—mannequins
dressed as Gigo might have dressed, meeting with people Gigo
might have met. We recognized the mannequin Fra Nando from the
statue we’d seen in the city center, although this version
was less friendly. His hand was on Gigo’s shoulder, his
expression enigmatic. She was looking past him up at something
tall and transcendent. There was clothing laid out, male and
female, in glass cases along with playbills, baptismal certificates,
baby pictures. Stapled to the wall were a series of book illustrations—a
bandito seizing a woman on a balcony. The woman shaking free,
leaping to her death. A story Gigo had written? A family legend?
A scene from the civil war? All of the above? The man who sold
us our tickets, Senor Brunelle, was conducting a tour for an
elderly British couple, but since we hadn’t paid it would
be wrong to stand where we could hear. We were careful not to
We spoke to Senor Brunelle
after. We made polite noises about the museum, so interesting,
we said. So unexpected. And then Charlotta asked him what he
knew about the Last Word Cafe.
he said. “Myself, my family, we don’t go down the
steps anymore.” He was clearly sad about this. “All
“What does it mean,”
Charlotta asked first. “Poetry to the death?”
“Which word needs
definition? Poetry? Or Death?”
“I know the words.”
“Then I am no more
help,” Senor Brunelle told her.
“Why does it say
it’s by the river when there’s no river?”
Charlotta asked second.
“Always a river.
In San Margais, always a river. Sometimes in your mind. Sometimes
in the gorge. Either way, a river.”
“Is there any reason
we shouldn’t go?” Charlotta asked third.
“Go. You go. You
won’t get in,” Senor Brunelle said. He said this
to Charlotta. He didn’t say it to me.
* * *
The Last Worders:
On the night Raphael took
the open mic at the Last Word Cafe, he did three poems. He spoke
ten minutes. He stood on the stage and he didn’t try to
move; he didn’t try to make it sing; he made no effort
to sell his words. The light fell in a small circle on his face
so that, most of the time, his eyes were closed. He was beautiful.
The people listening also closed their eyes and that made him
more beautiful still. The women, the men who’d wanted
him when he started to talk no longer did so. He was beyond
that, unfuckable. For the rest of their lives, they’d
be undone by the mere sound of his name. The ones who spoke
English tried to write down some part of what he’d said
on their napkins, in their travel journals. They made lists
of words— childhood, ice, yes. Gleaming, yes, yesterday.
These are the facts. Anyone
can figure out this much.
For the rest, you had to
be there. What was heard, the things people suddenly knew, the
things people suddenly felt—none of that could be said
in any way that could be passed along. By the time Raphael had
finished, everyone listening, everyone there for those few minutes
on that night at the Last Word Cafe, had been set free.
These people climbed the
steps afterwards in absolute silence. They did not go back,
not a single one of them, to their marriages, their families,
their jobs, their lives. They walked to the city center and
they sat in the square on the edge of the fountain at the feet
of the friendly Fra Nando and they knew where they were in a
way they had never known it before. They tried to talk about
what to do next. Words came back to them slowly. Between them,
they spoke a dozen different languages, all useless now.
You could have started
the movie of any one of them there, at the feet of the stone
statue. It didn’t matter what they could and couldn’t
say; they all knew the situation. Whatever they did next would
be done together. They could not imagine, ever again, being
with anyone who had not been there, in the Last Word Cafe, on
the night Raphael Kaplinsky spoke.
There were details to be
ironed out. How to get the money to eat. Where to live, where
to sleep. How to survive now, in a suddenly clueless world.
But there was time to make
these decisions. Those who had cars fetched them. Those who
did not climbed in, fastened their seat belts. On the night
Raphael Kaplinsky spoke at the Last Word Cafe, the patrons caravanned
out of town without a last word to anyone. The rest of us would
not hear of the Last Worders again until one of them went on
Larry King Live and filled a two-hour show with a two-hour silence.
* * *
Or else they all died.
* * *
Charlotta and I had dinner
by ourselves in the converted basement of an old hotel. The
candles flickered our shadows about so we were, on all sides,
surrounded by us. Charlotta had the trout. It had been cooked
dry, and was filled with small bones. Every time she put a bite
in her mouth, she pulled the tiny bones out. I had the mussels.
The sauce was stiff and gluey. Most of the shells hadn’t
opened. The food in San Margais is nothing to write home about.
We finished the meal with
old apples and young wine. We were both nervous, now that it
came down to it, about seeing Raphael again. Each of us secretly
wondered, could we live with Raphael’s choice? However
it went? Could I be happy for Charlotta, if it came to that?
I asked myself. Could I bear watching her forced to be happy
for me? I sipped my wine and ran through every moment of my
relationship with Raphael for reassurance. That stuff about
the acid experiment. How much he liked my boots. “Let’s
go,” Charlotta said and we were a bit unsteady from the
wine, which, in retrospect, with an evening of 839 steps ahead
of us, was not smart.
We crossed the bridge in
a high wind. The rain came in sideways; the wind turned our
umbrellas inside out. Charlotta was thrown against the rope
rails and grabbed on to me. If she’d fallen, she would
have taken me with her. If I saved her, I saved us both. Our
umbrellas went together into the gorge.
We reached the steps and
began to descend, sometimes with light, sometimes feeling our
way in the darkness. About one hundred steps up from the bottom,
a room had been carved out of the rock. Once slave owners had
sat at their leisure there, washing and rewashing their hands
and feet, overseeing the slaves on the stairs. Later the room
had been closed off with the addition of a heavy metal door.
A posting had been set on a sawhorse outside. The Last Word
Cafe, the English part of it said. Not for Everyone.
The door was latched. Charlotta
pounded on it with her fist until it opened. A man in a tuxedo
with a wide orange cummerbund stepped out. He shook his head.
“American?” he asked. “And empty-handed? That’s
no way to make a river.”
for the poetry,” Charlotta told him and he shook his head
And Charlotta reached into
the back pocket of her pants. Charlotta pulled out the orange
paper given to me by the boy on the train. The man took it.
He threw it into a small basket with many other such papers.
stood aside and let Charlotta
He stepped back to block
me. “Invitation only.”
“That was my invitation,”
I told him. “Charlotta!” She looked back at me,
over her shoulder without really turning around. “Tell
him. Tell him that invitation was for me. Tell him how Senor
Brunelle told you you wouldn’t get in.”
Charlotta. “That woman on the street told you you wouldn’t
But I had figured that
part out. “She mistook me for you,” I said.
the door I could see Raphael climbing onto the dais. I could
hear the room growing silent. I could see Charlotta’s
back sliding into a crowd of people like a knife into water.
The door swung toward my face. The latch fell.
I stayed a long time by
that door, but no sounds came through. Finally I walked down
the last hundred steps. I was alone at the bottom of the gorge
where the rain fell and fell and there was no river. I would
never have done to Charlotta what she had done to me.
It took me more than an
hour to climb back up. I had to stop many, many times to rest,
airless, heart throbbing, legs aching, lightheaded in the dark.
No one met me at the top.
Joy Fowler is the author of two story collections and four
novels, including the New York Times bestseller The
Jane Austen Book Club. Her story “What I Didn’t
See” won the Nebula award in 2003. She has taught creative
writing at Stanford, UC Davis, Cleveland State, Alabama University,
and numerous summer workshops.