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Authors: Mordecai Richler

The Acrobats (6 page)

BOOK: The Acrobats
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Kraus grinned insipidly. But Chaim had startled him. “I don’t understand what you mean,” he said.

“You have been following André.”

Kraus frowned. Until now following André had lacked excitement, but since Chaim was so concerned perhaps he had not wasted his time after all. Only that afternoon Kraus had tried to make out what André was saying to the Americans, but they had been speaking too quickly for him to understand. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said.

Chaim gripped Kraus by the arm. His face was flushed. It was the first time Kraus had ever seen him angry. “Roger, I have never threatened you,” he said, “but I’m warning you now. Do you know how easy it would be for me to have you carried off to France? Do you know what it would mean if they found you in Toulouse?”

Kraus laughed cockily. “You wouldn’t,” he said. “Theresa says you haven’t the courage.”

Chaim let go of his arm. “Don’t you understand? Theresa despises you.”

Kraus got up. A waiter came between them and he pushed him out of the way. His face was drained of colour. His eyes were hard and vacant. “I know about your passport,” he said. “If I was making threats I should remember that.”

Chaim lit his cigar. It serves me right for making threats, he thought. “Why are you following him?” he asked wearily.

“I’m going.”

Chaim stood in his way.

Kraus seemed unsettled. “I don’t know why. I’m not … Theresa says he is … He fascinates me.” He stopped. “I’m human too, you know. It was only a war. Why shouldn’t I have a girl as well?”

He looked at Chaim as if he was startled by what he had told him. He pushed him out of the way and hurried towards the door.

Chaim turned to Luís. Luís poured him a glass of muscatel. His eyes were burning. “If you need me or the others, Chaim,” he said, “all you have to do is say so.”

Chaim looked up sharply. “Tough guys,” he said. “The world is full of tough guys.”

Luís looked away. He began to wash glasses.

IX

André noticed her just as she started across the street – her hips pushing against her gay print skirt, her breasts very nice in her summery blouse, her legs quick, and taking small steps patiently. She paused to let a taxi go by. She curled her lower lip fretfully, so that now she was not only lovely but wicked-looking also. André suddenly felt clumsy, restless also, the way he always did until she sat down beside him. Nice, graceful Toni, he thought.

“Querido!”
she said, as if it was a wonderful surprise to find him waiting for her.

“Hullo, yourself,” he said shyly. “Sit down.”

“I looked for you,” she said.

“I know.”

“Why didn’t you call today?”

“I was on my way up to your place this afternoon, but I ran into some Americans.”

“I’m so tired,
guapo
. My feet are stinging like many bee bites: I have danced with so many clumsy brutes tonight. Please buy me a cognac.”

André called the waiter and ordered two cognacs.

“Tell me a funny story,” she said.

“I don’t know any.”

“Then make one up.”

“Toni, please!”

“Act your age, Toni,” she said, mimicking his hard baritone.

He laughed uneasily. He felt she was forcing herself and he wondered what was wrong.

“Let’s do something silly tonight,” she said.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Just something. Anything. As long as it isn’t ugly. I can’t … André! Guillermo is back. He came by tonight asking for you. I told him I didn’t know where you were.”

André said nothing.

“The police are looking for him. I don’t want you doing any drawings for him or giving him money. It’s not as if you were a communist.”

“Maldito!
How could you tell him you didn’t know where I was?”

Guillermo was a small, agile man. The last time they had met, it was months now, had been in Cosmi’s Bar. Guillermo no longer wrote lovely sonnets celebrating love.
“This is not the time, camarada. Now we must hate. It must be our religion.”

“Please don’t see him.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s coming up to my room tomorrow. André, please!”

André ran his hand through his hair and began to scratch nervously. He looked at her, his eyes slow and deepening, and she despised him for it. It was all right when he was angry or drunk, but when he turned inwards and faraway she lost all patience – it was unfair, unkind, for if they were lovers they should share everything.

“Do you still want to do something silly?” he asked tenderly.

She didn’t answer.

“We could yank Chaim out of bed and make him come swimming with us?”

“Don’t make concessions for me, André! I know what you are thinking!” Now all her gestures were quick, and she spit out her words. “You are thinking she is a woman and she doesn’t know about these things. But you are children! Ho, you and Guillermo are going to change things! Yes, you are revolutionaries. Sure, ‘we would rather die on our feet than live on our knees.’ So my father – also a fine revolutionary – is dead. My brother is dead. My uncles are dead. And for wh …”

“Toni, I …”

“No, let me finish! You and Guillermo have discovered that there is poverty and injustice, you … pooh! There has always been poverty. You can do nothing, do you understand?
Nothing! Why? What is the use of talking? Kill, and kill, and kill. Me, I would rather live on my knees. Now, I have said it!”

She was breathing quickly and that made her breasts prominent. He remembered them naked, lovely, soft like no other thing soft, and he wanted very much to lay his head on her breasts now, perhaps dragging on a cigarette, but slowly, easily, and she would stroke his hair, and she would say: “It is all right. It is all right.”

“I can think of nothing to say except that he is my friend.”

“That is no answer!”

“You are angry with me.”

“That also is no answer.”

I want only the clean things, she thought. I have had enough of the rest. “Love me, André,” she said.

He grinned, but impatiently.

“Love,” he thought. That is one of the words that is no longer any good. Like
courage, soul, beautiful, honour
, and so many others. Words that have become almost obscene because of the whoring of the hack writers.

She dropped her hand on his knee. Even his body was tight, she could feel such things. Already he is thinking about him, she thought. About what they will talk about. “All he had to do,” she said, “was to go down on his knees and cry, ‘
Viva Franco!
’ It was such a little thing! But he said no, never. The man who shot him was from Florence and he had studied for the priesthood.”

“They would have shot him anyway, Toni.”

“Perhaps.”

“Drink your cognac.”

“In the summer they would take us out in the boats and we would jump overboard and swim. The water was very cool, and there was always the taste of salt in our mouths. The priests said it was evil because we all swam and played together and we were often naked. My father laughed at the
priests, he said they had filthy minds. At night there was always dancing on the quays, especially when there was a good catch. That night there was only the noise of the shooting.” Suddenly Toni laughed a quickly joyful laugh and her eyes were glad. “Are we going to make love tonight,
guapo?”

“You want to come to Canada with me, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Why, yes?”

“Because it is good in Canada and there is lots of money, and girls like myself don’t have to work in cabarets.”

“How do you know?”

“Everybody knows.”

“And what would we do in Canada?”

“You would paint great pictures. We would have a big family, and at night we would go for a drive in your father’s car.”

His shoulders slumped. “How do you know my father has a car?”

“Hasn’t he?”

“Yes. But he wouldn’t lend it to us. He isn’t sure that I’m his son. He thinks I might be the son of a guy named Serge.”

“Serge? Tell me about Serge.”

“Not now.”

“Yes. Now!”

André lit a cigarette. The street was empty. He blew a big puff of smoke into the damp night air and smiled tenderly at Toni. “Crazy, lovely Toni,” he said softly.

“Ahora!”

“Serge was one of my mother’s lovers. He was a kind of poet, I guess. They edited a magazine together. She was madly in love with him. Serge, on the other hand, adored me and my mother’s Cadillac. I was young. I understood nothing about those things. Finally, mama gave him up for a painter.

“Although poor Serge suspected that he was altogether incapable, my parents believed that I was his son. My father
because from the very beginning I was ‘unbalanced’ and rebellious and ‘gifted,’ my mother because it all would have been so utterly romantic. But none of it is true.”

“You are very ugly when you tell me these things.”

An old, stooping man made his way down the street picking up cigarette butts from the gutter. He found a piece of bread and bit into it.

Toni pinched the inside of his thigh. “Would you like me to have babies for you?” she asked.

“No.”

“Big, strong, Spanish babies.”

“No.”

“Hijo de puta!
Why, no?”

“Let’s go,” he said.

“Okay, honey,” she said in English, pretending that she was chewing gum.

Coward, he thought.

They walked along slowly.

“Recite a poem for me,
guapo.”

“I can only recite English poems,
favorita.”

“I don’t care about the meaning. I like the sounds of the words. English words are so hard. You always look so serious when you recite. You make me laugh.”

“So I make you laugh, eh?”

“Si señor.”

They were on the Calle de Colón, not far from the gardens.

“Where are we going?”

“To the river.”

Always, he wanted to go down the river. Why did it fascinate him so? But she made no objection. She pushed him into a doorway and held him and kissed his lips and throat. She tickled his ribs playfully. Then she kissed him again, nipping at his ear. “You are not going to think about Guillermo. You are not going to be sad. If you are sad I’ll kick you where it hurts.”

He embraced her warmly.

They passed several
fallas
on their way down to the river, each one posturing like a predatory ogre in the darkness. The light of the lamp posts pasted a glistening sheen on the backs of the wooden structures, suggesting a sort of supernatural sweat. As far as he was concerned their construction hadn’t sprung from the spontaneous mischief of a fiesta-minded city but instead was part of the master plan of some diabolical spirit. As if they were not going to be burned, but had to be burned.

“Miguel was in tonight,” she said. “He is such a sweet boy,
muy simpático
. His parents are very strict, you know. It was his first time in a cabaret. He told me that he had dreamt about me and in his dream he owed me two hundred pesetas. All the time he was talking he was blushing like a girl. I told him he had dreamt about Carmen, and that she was very pretty and would be overjoyed to get her two hundred pesetas. He understood. I introduced him to Carmen.”

She glanced at him coquettishly, anticipating an amusing remark. His face showed nothing.

I will not tell him now, she thought. It is not a good time.

Suddenly André stopped short. “Somebody as lovely as you! How in God’s name can you be a whore, Toni?”

“Guapo
is excited and saying cruel things.”

“What do you think of when you’re in bed with a strange man? Do you say your beads?”

“Stop! Don’t talk like that.”

“I once made love to a slut in Barcelona and she crossed herself before she got into bed with me.”

“André!”

He grabbed her. He kissed her longingly, holding her hard against him. “Don’t pay any attention, Toni. Not when I talk badly. I …”

She leaned her head on his shoulder. He felt her nails digging into him. “I’m not a whore. I don’t sleep with strange
men. I only dance with them. You know that. It’s the only job I can …”

“Please, darling. Don’t. I must be crazy to say such things.”

He lit a cigarette and gave her a puff.

Before them loomed the landscape of the Rio Turia. A belly of yellow weeds and burnt grass, anæmic sands and stones, trickling mosquito-ridden streams. O Turia! O turbulent river! How you had once been proud! Overflowing mighty banks, heaving chaos and destruction on the city. Drowsy workers had eaten of their noonday bread whilst dangling their legs over your banks. Children had swum, sometimes drowning, in your powerful currents. And the swollen barges, heaped up with oranges and figs and grapes, rolling down your pitching waters. Roman soldiers had stopped here to wet their heads, the voice of Seneca boomed across your banks, the Cid of whom all Spain sings knelt here to pray, and James the Conqueror, on his way to liberate the city, paused on this spot to water his majestic charger. Here the Knight of the Sad Countenance had sworn his fidelity to the incomparable Dulcinea while weary Sancho dreamed of his governorship under an olive tree. More recently still, German shells belching news of the modern world into the city, had dropped, momentarily sizzling, in your waters.… How many suicides? What did it matter whether they were Falangists or Reds when their young bodies toppled into currents swelling with the blood of revolution?

And now, opulent Turia, where is your glory?

Starving workers, bellies bloated big with grief, farm splotches of your desiccated bed. Dead, debauched giant! Rendezvous for pauper lovers! Unemployed newlyweds beget dead children in the niches and apertures at the bottom of your concrete sidings, lost men cook dead rats over twig fires, talk of life and death and revolution, finally crawling into the damp dark caves to huddle against the cold of night.… Are these the
men who write
Arriba España! Siempre Franco!
in a neat unhurried script on the concrete walls? Are the dogs who paint the slogans the ones who careen crazily over towards the bridge when a butt is tossed out of the window of a speeding car?

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