Smiley and the Midnight Conversationsby David Keith
There is a reason I came to Barcelona. It wasn't to stop thieves, or to stand perfectly still.
It wasn't to get drunk, either, although that is what I am doing right now. I'm in a bar in the Hotel Eixample, waiting for Smiley. Since it is what you do in a bar, I am drinking. Sometimes when I am working hard, or when I have a lot on my mind, I ask myself, what do people in my situation do? Half the time, they drink. So I am playing the hard-luck drinking game. I play the got-to-think-this-thing-through smoking game as well. It seems fitting, so I do it. I buy a Cuban cigar from the bartender, just because I can. Throw a little economic support the way of the comrades. I had started off drinking sangria, because I thought that that's what someone in my position would be drinking. But sangria is a silly wine, I have decided. You can't really drink very much of it.
So I have switched to regular scotch. Someone in my position would probably be drinking scotch, anyway, rather than sangria. So a little trial and error. It's made me what I am today.
Behind the bar, I am surprised to see an image of myself in the mirror, behind rows of upside down bottles of liquor. I won't say what it is I see, or what it means to me. Suffice it to say I move to a table.
I am starting to feel stupid, now, sitting in a bar drinking scotch and smoking a Cuban cigar. I wish Smiley would show up so we could get this over with. I have to ask myself, if I weren't in my position, what would I be doing? If I don't drink and don't smoke, and don't make shady deals in bars, then what do I do?
I pull out a small notebook and write down some ideas, which is what I would be doing if I weren't in my position. It makes me feel a little better, except that my ideas are stupid when I am drunk. In my notebook, I draw a picture of the bar I am sitting in. "O Señor, you are an artist! You did not tell me!"
I knew that would happen. "Hola, Smiley. Join me for a drink?"
I call Smiley Smiley, and I call it right to his Spanish face. He's got a big, wide head and an ugly, perpetual smile, and rotting teeth. Apparently Franco was a big anti-fluoride champion. Smiley's got a pretty bad smoking habit, too. Smoke comes out of his mouth even when he's not smoking, which is seldom, plus he's dying of emphysema. I sure didn't come to Barcelona to do business with this man. Actually, it could be said that I am doing business with Smiley to get out of Barcelona. I like the sound of that. It's something someone in my position would say.
He sits beside me, not across from me.
I ought to have a gun, I just realized. I would have a gun.
"Are you waiting long?" Smiley asks. He smells of stale cigarettes and of beer and faintly of shit.
"I got nothin' but time," I tell him.
"Very good," he says. He orders a bottle of cheap sangria and pulls out a cheap local cigar from his ragged jacket pocket. I can see a gun under his jacket. Damn.
"So, Mr. Drake, how are you finding Barcelona?" Smiley speaks, and yellow spittle gathers at the corners of his mouth.
"It's a walking town," I say. "And I'm a walker."
"Have you seen the Catedral de la Sagrada Familia, that Gaudi monstrosity?"
"Can't miss it, Smiley. I like it, though. I was thinking of going to mass there tomorrow."
"Can you understand Catalàn? The mass is in Catalàn, not in Spanish, you know." "Same same," I say and Smiley gives me a certain look. He is a hideous monster, but he is unable to produce a convincing expression of contempt.
"Mr. Drake, there is something you should understand..."
"Look, I'm just kidding. Could we get on with this?"
"Señor Drake, I am an old man, and I am dying. Do you know what I do for a living? I sit at the desk of the Pension Bienstar and let the guests in and out all night, from midnight until six a.m. And do you know who the guests are at this pension? Have you any idea?"
"I'm guessing, hookers and junkies?"
"Correct. And do they have time to talk to an old man?"
"So are you telling me you called me here for the conversation?"
Smiley begins to laugh, and I notice he has finished half the bottle of sangria, and it is eleven-thirty. He will have to go to work in a few minutes and I don't understand what is going on.
"You can be clever," he says. He takes a long drink of the wine and wipes his mouth on his jacket sleeve. "Tell me, Drake. You draw. Do you like to read, too?"
"Comic books, erotic letters. That's about it."
"Do you know the used bookstore on La Rambla?"
"You mean the one between the monument to Christopher Columbus and the adult book store?"
"Precisely. I want you to go there..." Smiley writes something down on a piece of napkin. "And look for this book. Buy it and read it carefully, and then come see me at the pension tomorrow night and then we can talk. Do you understand?"
I slip the note into my pocket without reading it. "Yeah, I got it. That it? Can I go?" I stand up and put on my overcoat.
"You and the whores. Always running. Yes. Go."
Finally. It's a good cigar, that much I can tell, but I have had enough of it, so I throw it into the sewer. I walk to a sandwich stand and get a shwarma and a coffee. I figure food and caffeine. I shall return to myself.
Turns out I am not far from Plaça Universitat, so I go to a bench there and sit. It is almost midnight and all of the college kids are walking around, looking young and beautiful. It is October so they haven't been in school very long. They are still getting to know each other and all of that crap. Sitting on a bench in the middle of the night watching the girls. Is this what I do? Why shouldn't it be?
I think as I slowly sober up, I am passing the rest of the city headed in the opposite direction. I watch a pack of men in blue uniforms with automatic weapons and Dobermans on tight leashes as they watch the girls. I imagine ways I could test the limits. Men in uniforms are almost always children. I've found that to be true in every country I've ever been in. Children with automatic weapons can certainly be frightening, and yet I don't think that is how soldiers are meant to be seen. But it is what they are, God bless them.
I walk from Plaça Universitat to Plaça Catalunya and turn to go down La Rambla. As I said, Barcelona is a walking town, and here everyone is out walking. It is midnight on Saturday, and La Rambla is crowded with men, women and children walking and talking and smoking and drinking. Vendors are open and you can buy flowers and newspapers and magazines and drinks and even birds. Who knows why, but the bird sellers are open even now. I stop at a bird vendor and examine the goods. Full-grown roosters, hens, ducks, geese. They are crowing and squawking and tweeting. I buy a ducky for a hundred pesetas, about one U.S. dollar. I take my ducky back to the room at the Meridien. I fill the bath with luke-warm water. I put the ducky into the bath. I go to the mini-bar and make hot-water for camomile tea. I take off my clothes. I take the phone and the cup of tea with me into the bathroom, and I join the ducky in the bath. I decide to call Sherry back in the States.
Now I am pretty sure that this is what I would do if I weren't in my position. Katie answers the phone. My ducky is splashing a bit more that I'd like him to. I don't think it's real happy.
"Hey, Katie, guess what?"
"What?" Katie says.
"I'm taking a bath with a real duck. What do you think about that?"
"You are not." Katie is learning to contradict. Well good for her. We need more independent minds like hers in this world.
"Don't contradict Daddy now," I say. "I'm telling the truth. There's a yellow baby duck with me in the bathtub right now. Wouldn't you like to take a bath with a real duck?"
"No," she says. "It's dirty."
"Yeah, I suppose you have a point there. Put Mommy on the phone, will you?"
"Hello?" It's Sherry.
"Put your sweet lips..."
"...a little closer to the phone..."
"Harry! Where are you?"
"Hi, baby. I can't tell you where I am. It's confidential."
"Don't give me that."
"Hey Sherry, guess what?"
"You've got the rhythm and I've got the blues."
"It's a Willy Nelson song," I say.
"So?" she says.
"I just wanted to say I love you and everything's going to be all right. OK?"
Finally, just, "Yeah?"
I stand up out of the bath and the duck freaks out. I want to drain the tub and take a shower, but I think I am going to leave the duck here, to have the run of the bathroom. I towel off. I am sleepy. It is one-thirty in the morning. As I lie on the bed, I reach into the pocket of my overcoat and pull out the note Smiley wrote for me. The book he wants me to get is The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing. There are too many things this could mean for me to worry about it tonight.
I wake up at dawn. I go into the bathroom and I can't find the duck. Finally I find him on top of the medicine cabinet. There is duck shit on the mirror. I guess I'm going to have to get a cage. I wonder if you can get bird-cages on Sundays in this town. You never know about a city's blue laws. You would think that any town that sells birds at midnight on Saturdays ought to sell bird cages on Sundays, but I've learned not to take things like that for granted.
I dress for church. I am going to church. I am going to pray to God. I'm going to go to Communion. This is exactly what I'm going to do. And I'm going to do it in the unfinished Gaudi cathedral. Even if I don't understand a word of Catalàn. I tie the baby duck to the leg of a chair with a shoelace and go out. Sure enough I do everything I say I'm going to do. I go to mass and it is fine. Nobody has the foggiest idea that I am not one of them. It is perfectly holy. I take a good look at the architecture of the cathedral, inside and out. It is a monstrosity, you have to admit. It seems amazing to me that they are actually bothering to finish this project. Amazing that it survived the Spanish Civil War, when the people were busy sacking and burning every other church in town. Perhaps the rioters then didn't seriously expect anyone to finish it, either. Perhaps it wasn't revered enough to merit annihilation.
I burp, and my mouth is filled with the acidic flavor of the Host.
I walk past the Gothic cathedral on my way to Las Ramblas. I am in luck. It is Sunday and in front of the Gothic cathedral the people have organized a dance, the customary Catalonian dance, the Sardana. A band is situated on the steps and is playing its wheezing melody and accentuated beat. It is composed of mostly wind instruments but also cymbals and a bass. The people, hundreds of people, are gathered in circles with joined hands, from two to twenty people in a circle, and they slowly and simply bop-bop around, closing the circle and opening it back up again. Taking a certain number of steps in one direction, and a certain different number of steps in the other direction, eventually rotating completely around during the song. In the center of the circle is a pile with all of their jackets and purses and so on.
I toss my overcoat onto the pile in the center of a large circle of dancers, composed mainly of Japanese and German tourists. They think I am a local. I turn to the young Japanese lady to my right and I say, "Usted sabe bailar muy bien."
She says, "Gracias."
I say, "Aregato."
It's that kind of a day.
I walk to Las Ramblas. Whenever you tell people you are going to Barcelona, they say, "Stay away from Las Ramblas." They mean to advise you that this is a working class neighborhood, where the people are not well-disposed to tourists. They mean to say that this is where you will find the prostitutes, the drug addicts, and the petty street crime. And they are perfectly right in every way. Except that it would be silly to come all the way to Barcelona and not come to Las Ramblas. Not only silly, but hard to do. It would be like saying, "New York is nice, but don't ride the subways or take the taxis." Las Ramblas is a district that is too central and too beautiful to avoid. Its streets, like Gaudi's cathedral towers, are organic and not geometric.
You walk down La Rambla de Catalunya, the boulevard that runs from Plaça Catalunya to the water, and you cut right just before the Columbo monument, and you enter Las Ramblas. And there, just next to a porno cinema, you can find the bookstore Smiley was talking about. It is only one of many used bookstores and stalls through out the city. I figure it is a good sign to find abundant used bookstores in a town. It means that the people who live here are literate. And it means that they appreciate the value of a manufactured object, and therefore the value of labor. At least I want to read it that way.
I rummage through the boxes of dusty books in the English language section. Most of the books are old best-sellers left behind by tourists. Without much difficulty, I find The Good Terrorist. Just holding this ragged paperback, I feel like a psychic. I can sense its whole life. It seems old but not so long ago it was new. Some Brit bought this book at a bookstore in the U.K. They read it on the train, in the hotel, at the park. They finished it. They left it in their hotel room. Some character like Smiley collected it, and along with all of the others he had been hoarding, brought it here for a few pesetas. And now it's for sale for 300 pesetas. I buy it. I also buy a copy of Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. Always good travel reading. You can find books by Henry Miller in any used bookstore in the world, any time you want. I see serveral cartoon books featuring Tintin, the French boy journalist adventurer. I buy a copy of Tintin in Tibet in Spanish for Katie. Katie is a big Tintin fan. Or she will be when I'm through with her. Sherry and I decided we should collect a copy of Tintin in every country we visit, and collect them in every language in which they are published. We have, I mean Katie has, Tintin books in French, Italian, Spanish, English, and German.
I take my sack of stuff and go sit at a bench in the cool autumn sunshine and observe the pedestrian traffic. There are some prostitutes clacking up and down the pavement. It is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning.
I review my options. I can go back to Madrid and look for another job. Teach English or some baloney like that. Bring Sherry and Katie over when the time is right. I love Spain, but the idea of going back to Madrid now turns my stomach. Or I can go home on the next flight out and just start over somehow. I love Sherry and Katie, but going back to America would be humiliating. And I promised Sherry I would get them out of there. I'm especially worried about Katie, who doesn't know enough to hate and despise Texas; and it scares me when she picks up those little twings and twangs. She sure didn't get it from me.
Or I can wait and see what Smiley has got in store for me.
Which reminds me. I pull out the copy of The Good Terrorist. I actually read this book when it was brand new. I remember it seeming so pertinent and topical. So scary and true. It's funny now how old and almost clichèd it is in its despairing characterization of "our time". How specific to its time, too, the eighties. And how a time so recent can seem so over. I flip through the pages and remember. Of course, the moral and ideological problems of "terrorism" and "revolutionary struggle" haven't changed a bit. The bombs are still going off, that is for sure. There are indeed more people than ever willing to kill and die for an idea.
A Mexican girl stands before me. I can tell by her skin and features that she is Latin American, and not Spanish. She is not un-attractive and has not yet been destroyed by her profession. But I cannot bring myself to even imagine taking her up on her proposition. I could never get past the feeling that I would be dragging her down towards her final obliteration, just by making love to her.
I say, "Can I ask you a question?"
"Questions! Questions! Siempre preguntas!" she says, and walks away.
I was going to offer to murder her pimp, because I thought that is what someone in my position would do. I think it would be gratifying.
Now where was I?
Wait a minute. I'm not actually a killing person. I am not among those who kill or die for ideas. That's the reason I left America in the first place. Americans kill and die and they don't even have any ideas. That's why I don't carry a gun. That's why I don't do the things that people in my position would do. (At least I don't do them very well.) That's why I'm in this position in the first place.
I feel like letting myself go to hell. If it weren't for Sherry and Katie, I suppose I would. I suppose I owe my life to those two.
Oh, Sherry! I forgive you! Can't you hear me?
For the rest of the afternoon, I give all my money away to the beggars. Most days I ignore them, same as everyone else. Then in conversations with people I hear myself express sympathy for them and solidarity with them. Then I feel like a hypocrite, and then I go on these charity sprees. It's good way to kill an afternoon, besides. I have a nice plate of paella for dinner.
I go to the Four Cats Cafè and drink coffee and write notes in my little notebook and listen to the tourists as they read aloud from their Michelin guides about the raunchy days of the Art Nouveau crowd that made the Four Cats famous. Artists and naked ladies. Those were the days.
What the hell am I going to do now?
Be a tour guide? Write for Michelin? Teach English? Sell government secrets? Import-export? Baby-sit? Something that makes the most of my talents and skills? The hell with English, the hell with Michelin, the hell with the government.
The hell with my talents and skills, for that matter.
What time is it?
Ten o'clock. Two more hours.
I go out to the plaza in front of the Gothic cathedral and watch the roller-bladers.
Pension Bienstar is in an odd location. It's in the heart of Las Ramblas, and sure makes for a colorful midnight stroll. It's odd just because it's not really near any main street, and it's hard to find. You'd think a cheap pension that relies on street trade would want to be more visible. It's on a tiny alley that marks a sharp curve. You can't see more than fifteen feet ahead of you or behind you, and the only light is the dim neon sign advertising the Pension Bienstar. I hear Arabic voices around the curve ahead of me, and the clacking of heals around the curve behind me. A few stories up I hear Spanish television. The music and sound effects suggest an American action movie. I buzz the buzzer of the pension.
The door opens. It smells like ammonia and cigarettes inside. At the top of the stairs, Smiley is sitting at a high counter. He is, of course smiling. It's an actual smile, I think, and not the usual deformity. He has been reading a Spanish newspaper. There is a bell on the counter. I can hear Arabic voices coming from one direction, and the sounds of fucking coming from another. Someone is taking a shower. The smell of boiled meat lingers in the stale air.
"Hola," I say.
"Harry! It's good to see you. ¿Como estàs?"
I sit on a stool at one end of the counter, identical to the one Smiley sits on behind the counter. Under the counter there is a coffee can overflowing with cigarette ashes and filters. There is a freshly opened bottle of sangria and a dark green glass. He takes an swig of the wine. "Wait here," he says. He gets up and goes around the corner and disappears into a kitchen area and I hear him speak Catalonian with a woman. He returns with a glass. "Here."
I am already getting sleepy. It's late for me. I'm sorry. My midnight drinking days are behind me. But then, it's what someone in my position would do. I take the glass and drink some of the sangria. Before you know it, I am smoking, too. May as well. It's just theater. I can sense that maybe Smiley, too, is performing in a certain sense. Maybe this is his shady-deal, midnight-conversation self, and not his real self. Maybe there's some reason for it. I suspect that even the pension is performing, delivering what is expected, what is necessary. It, too, is just behaving in a way that a pension in its position would behave. And the city, too, for that matter. Is that possible? For places, things to exhibit behaviors? To be self-aware? To pose?
"So did you go to mass this morning?" he asks.
"Why yes I did, and it was good," I say.
"And were you troubled by the language?"
"Smiley, you don't understand me very well, do you?" I say. "I'm a linguist. It's my sport and my trade."
"Yes, of course." The buzzer buzzes. Smiley presses a button underneath the counter and I hear the downstairs door click and open. I hear two quiet American voices. They come up the stairs. A young man and a young woman, a couple. I say young. They are not much younger than myself. They look tired. Smiley gives them their key and they go into the room next to the one with the Arabic voices.
"Those two have been here almost two weeks," Smiley says.
"You're kidding," I say. "Jesus."
"They are waiting for something," he says.
"That's terrible," I say.
"They are the only Americans we have," he says.
"So, did you get the book?" he asks.
"Yes I did," I say. "Actually, I'd read it before. When it was new."
"What did you think of it?" he asks.
"I remember liking it," I say. "I remember thinking it was a real insight into ethical and moral choices available to us in our time. Or something like that. Whatever 'our time' is, or was. It seems dated to me now, though."
"What did you think of those people who planted that bomb?"
I can see what Smiley is driving at, but I can't quite bring myself to believe it, so I play dumb. Or rather, I take him at face value. "Well, Smiley, I think the book leaves you no choice but to view them as fools, but understandable and sympathetic fools. You know?"
"Sympathetic how?" he asks.
"Well, we've all been idealistic children, haven't we? We've all had the feeling that the time for change was at hand. The moment to act was now. We've all wanted to do something about it. Some of us are tested. And some of us feel like we have to test ourselves, and go out looking for trouble."
"When I was younger, Drake, I never went looking for trouble. You had no choice but to fight."
"I guess so." I forgot that I am talking to a man who actually lived through the Spanish Civil War. "If I may ask, who, in the War, in the Civil War, who did you fight for?"
"I fought for Barcelona and Catalonia."
Answers like that at once tell you more and less than you want to know. All parties, as far as they were concerned, fought for Barcelona. But what can I say to a man who speaks like this?
"And you, Drake," he says. "You say you went looking for trouble?"
"I guess I did my share of that when I was younger," I say.
"So now that you are not younger, and are not looking for trouble, what are you doing?" he asks.
"I'm not sure I get the point, Smiley. What are you trying to say?"
"I'm asking you if you believe that the time is no longer at hand, as you put it." Smiley gets very serious now, and his actual smile is gone leaving the stroke-damaged ghost of a smile.
"It's not for me, Smiley, but it is for you, I take it?"
I can't play dumb any more. It's too obvious. I remain silent and wait for him to spell it out. The doorbuzzer sounds. Smiley presses the button underneath the counter. The door opens and two Spanish girls come up, get their key, and go to their room, across from the Americans. I see the American girl now in her nightgown walk down the hall to the bathroom.
"Come with me," Smiley says.
He leads me to the kitchen. I can smell a strong smell of garbage. A woman is seated at the kitchen table. She is not quite as old as Smiley, but she is fatter. I can tell she has been listening and has been waiting for us. She, too, is projecting an image of herself, there is no question about it.
"Mr. Drake," she says.
I have the feeling I won't be introduced to her and I don't ask her name.
"Do you understand who we are, Mr. Drake?" she asks.
"I can put two and two together," I say. "You are fighting for Catalonia, and the moment is at hand?"
"More or less," she says. Smiley pours her a glass of sangria and sits down. "What do you want from me? Do you know who I am? I'm not anti-Madrid. I like Madrid. It's a walking town, and I'm a walker."
"Your aesthetics are of no consequence, Mr. Drake," she says.
"Maybe not to you, but they are to me. Too much consequence."
"You sound like a very principled man," the woman says, exhaling.
"Sure, that's me, why not?" I half-enjoy this game. I ought to know better. I suck in a deep lungful of the dead kitchen air.
The woman slides me an envelope. Inside I find a photograph and newspaper clippings reporting various terrorist acts: a car bombing of a supermarket in Barcelona; a car-bombing of a police station in Madrid; an assassination in Paris. The photograph shows a heavy-set bearded man in his fifties, on the back of a horse.
"People like this are out there," I say, exhaling.
"We know where he is," the woman says.
"Well I don't want to know," I say. "I only came here for the conversation. To talk about books. Right Smiley?"
"You don't have to know," she says.
"The moment," Smiley says, "is at hand."
"How can you, of all people, say that?" I say. "You must be seventy-five years old!"
"Seventy-three," Smiley says.
"How many moments does it take for you to get the message?" I say. "The moment is never at hand. All those moments were used up before I was born. The zeitgeist is dead!"
"The spirit of the times," she says, "cannot die. It can grow. It can change."
"You can change it, Drake," Smiley says. "This is a mission of peace."
"Peace," the woman says. "We give Madrid what they want. That is peace. You owe this man nothing. Just take it."
"Look," I say, standing up. "Thank you for the conversation, and in an interesting way, you flatter me with this proposition, but you have the wrong man. You people have no idea how wrong a man I am. I think I have been well-enough entertained." I stand. "I think I'll take my better judgment and go straight home."
"But Drake," Smiley says. "Think of our families. Think of your family."
I come out onto the street and I have no idea which direction to go to get out of Las Ramblas. I walk quickly, as if I did know.
I fill the bath and put the duck into the bath. I'm going to have to find out what ducks eat, poor thing. I step into the bath and call Sherry.
"Hey, Sherry, it's me."
"What, no song?" she says, laughing. She's drunk, I can already tell.
"Not tonight," I say. Sherry and I are so used to talking long-distance that we will allow long silences, without worrying about the cost, just because they are a natural part of the conversation. "What time is it over there?"
"Almost eight-thirty in the evening," she says.
"And you're drunk already?"
Silence. Carmichael's there. It's amazing what you can detect.
"You have a five-year old child, Sherry," I say. "For Christ's sake!"
"No, you have a five-year old child, Harry!" She screams. "For Christ's sake, you! What the hell are you doing over there? Tell me that. Are you working? Are you being a father to your child? Or are you too busy doing the right goddamned thing? Whatever you're doing, I hope it's philosophically fucking sound. Wouldn't want you to compromise or anything. Wouldn't want you to actually work for a living."
"Calm down, please, Sherry. I need to talk to you," I say.
"Well I don't feel like calming down. Katie and I are just sitting here in fucking Texas, Harry. Texas."
"Sounds like you want me to get angry so you can feel good about leaving me for that high school teacher," I say.
"I thought you forgave me for that, Mr. Easy-Going I'm-Not-Possessive Hippy Dippy."
"I thought I did, too, but now I'm not sure if that's what you wanted."
"Harry," she says, lowering her voice. "Katie deserves a father. Do you have any idea what that means? What are you doing in Barcelona? Do you have a job or not?"
"Sherry? How did you know I was in Barcelona?"
"Sherry? It's OK. I have a job."
I wake up and the duck is dead.
I fly back to Madrid with the envelope. I talk with the embassy people and explain what I have. I deliver the envelope to a Spanish police investigator. I stay in a hotel rather than my apartment. There is an envelope waiting for me in the safe of the hotel with ten thousand dollars in it.
I read the newspaper the next day and discover that there has been an assassination. A letter bomb has taken the life of a certain police investigator. The Basques are claiming credit. How do you like that?
My wife has left me for a high-school social studies teacher. My duck has died. I buy another duck. Nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars left.
I go down to the street and walk along Avenida Amerigo Vespucci. I buy some pistachios for nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars. I go to the park and lie down on a bench and feed pistachios to my new duck.
I wake up the next day and the duck is still alive.
This one's going to last.