‘toreador pants and a white cotton shirt’ fiction by Michael Paul Hogan

Michael Paul Hogan is a journalist, poet and literary essayist whose work has appeared extensively in the USA, UK, India and China. A former features writer and columnist for Island Life in Key West, Florida, he is the author of six volumes of poetry and is currently working on a collection of short stories.

Harry’s 1958 Thunderbird turned off the road and onto the beach. All four doors swung open and we each of us got out. It was six in the morning and the beach was deserted. The sea was purple and the sky was orange and the horizon a thin line of green. Harry took a handgun out of the glove compartment and started shooting at an empty Budweiser bottle that Billy-Ray had thrown out into the sea. Billy Ray took another bottle out of the crate in the trunk and went and stood over on Harry’s left, watching the spurts of water the bullets kicked up, tilting the beer in a long smooth swallow while Harry reloaded out of a box on the driver’s seat. Eight-Ball Eddie had wandered off up the shoreline some ways and was holding a bottle of Four Roses and skimming coins across the surface of the sea. I felt a little cold and kind of sat / kind of leaned back against the hood of the Thunderbird, gripping my own bottle of Bud between my knees while I lit a cigarette. I’d had the idea of a story taking better and better shape in my mind during the whole time we were in The Blue Parrot. It had survived the noise of the jukebox and a whole load of tequila shots and eight or nine games of pool and it would be sad to lose it now, now that we were out at the beach. I inhaled and exhaled and imagined I was in my college room and sitting in front of my Remington portable and typing it down. They walked from a room that was entirely yellow to a room that was entirely blue. Imagining typing a story was a good way not to lose it. I visualized the keys hammering a sheet of paper and mentally slammed the carriage shift each time Harry shot a bullet into the sea.      

*

They walked from a room that was entirely yellow to a room that was entirely blue. She said,

       “The poetry of the future will be hung on the walls of galleries and written in a language only the poet and one other person understand. No, it won’t, it won’t be that at all. It’ll be etched on the thinnest sheets of aluminium and then presented and displayed like Chinese calligraphy, on a scroll that can be rolled up and stored… like a puppet! Like a puppet in a box! – No, even thinner than that. It’ll be the foil you get in cigarette packets or wrapped around individual chocolates in chocolate boxes and the poems won’t be poems in any language at all but simply the creases you always get in chocolate wrappers when you try to flatten them out. Do you remember?”

          “Remember what?”

          “When I was reading Holberg’s Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimn and eating the box of chocolates you’d given me because I’d caught you smiling at some girl on the AutoShuttle – ”

          “I remember the chocolates. I don’t remember the girl.”

“– and I flattened out the foil that had been wrapped around the crème noisette and used it as a bookmark. And the more I used it and the more flattened it got the more beautiful it became. A sort of meeting point between poetry and spatial physics. Or better still the after-image caused by a combination of Rayographs and driving very fast down Oxford Street on a late December afternoon in the pouring sleet and rain. Oh, and incidentally, the girl was memorable, the chocolates were not.”

“But you remembered the chocolates.”

“But you failed to remember the girl.”    

          They passed out of the room that was blue and entered a room that was entirely white. The floor was white, the walls were white and the ceiling was white. She said,

          “What was I wearing when we first met?”

          “We met at a party on MoonBase Nine.” 

          “That isn’t the answer to the question I asked.”

          “It’s the answer to the question that should’ve come first.”

          “What was I wearing?”

          “You were wearing toreador pants and a white cotton shirt. What was I?”

          “I can’t remember. I remember the gin ran out and the vol-au-vents were cold. I remember it was snowing outside. I remember I went out onto the balcony because someone had given me a brandy and I needed some fresh air. It was the most wonderful, the freshest air I had ever known. I lit a cigarette and almost immediately a snowflake, an absolutely enormous snowflake, landed sssssssss on the head of the match. I’d never seen such a perfect snowflake before – and haven’t since. And while I was smoking the cigarette, I looked over the balcony railing and down at the street. I think we were four maybe five floors up. And although the party wasn’t a very wonderful party, in fact it was really rather second-rate, they’d done a fantastic job of setting up an exterior facsimile of Prague and I remember looking down at the tramlines glittering or gleaming or whatever through the cobblestones, and a streetlight illuminating a poster for the Black-Light Theatre, and everything, all of this, seen through a sort of screen of snow, and seen falling down, away from one, so that the flakes of snow were spinning spinning between oneself and the street. And I remember the exact texture of the cigarette filter between my lips as I saw a man down on the street, he must’ve stepped off the departing tram, wearing an overcoat with the collar turned up and a hat with a gorgeously swooping brim and surrounded by – ”

          “By?”

          “ – by snowflakes. And then he glanced up at where I was standing, smiled a slender smile, and walked in the direction of the Old Town Square. I remember wanting to call out to him or something, I didn’t know what, I took the cigarette out of my mouth and was waving it like it was a children’s firework toy, and then another star came and sat on the end of my cigarette and went sssssssss just like before…”

          “A star? Don’t you mean snowflake?”

          “…I mean something beautiful and incredible that fell from the sky. Who knows? There is less difference between a snowflake and a star than there is between a man who steps off a tram and glances up at a balcony and a man who stays on the tram and is merely a silhouette in a square of yellow light…”

          They walked from the room that was entirely white and into a room that was completely purple. She said,

          “In the depths of the deepest sea, in depths deeper even than those discerned of by Professor Apollinax or Nicholas Krimn, there exist creatures that unspool their intestines as a faulty film projector might unspool the works of Jean-Luc Godard, leaving behind them a gorgeous phosphorescence, illuminating with celluloid the submarine.”

          “Vivre sa vie with Anna Karina.”

          “The Oval Portrait by Edgar A. Poe.”

          “Where did we meet – the second time?”

          “In a taxi we shared by sheer coincidence.”

          “From where to where?”

          “From Camden High Street to The British Museum.”

          “What was I wearing? Can you remember?”

          “A black polo-neck sweater and a pair of green-tinted spectacles.”

          “Can you remember if it was raining or snowing?”

          “It was neither, it was eternally spring.”

          At the entrance to the next room she hesitated. She said,

          “I hope the next room isn’t green. There are lizards on Jupiter that are as big as ping-pong tables. Their tongues are yellow and their eyes are green. They climb onto the roofs of churches and lick the copper off the bells. They are related to the lizards that live in the oceans of Venus, the lizards that crawl up the masts of sailing ships and eat the crows that keep lookout in sailors’ nests. I shall never wear green.”

           The room that was entirely purple was followed not by a room that was green but by a room that was entirely orange. It had an orange floor, an orange ceiling and orange walls. She said,

          “You once bought me a bouquet of flowers and in the middle of the bouquet was a rose. Do you remember?”

          “Yes, I remember.”

          “Oh, surely not! I’ve always loved the way you buy me flowers when there isn’t any necessity, I mean apart from a birthday or an anniversary or even an apology. It’s wonderfully you. But the bouquet to which I’m referring…”

          “I do remember.”

          “Oh, darling, you must’ve bought me dozens – no, hundreds – of bouquets in the last ten years. I’m talking about a very specific bouquet. A bouquet of mixed summertime flowers in the middle of which was a single orange rose. If it had been a green rose or a blue rose…”

          “It wasn’t. It wasn’t green or blue. It was orange.”

          “It was orange because I just told you it was orange. Oh, if I asked if you remembered, it wasn’t a proper question, just a figure of speech…”

          “But I do remember.”

          “What do you – no, how do you – remember?”

          “Because the bouquet was too large to fit in a single vase, so you divided it into two. The vase containing the rose – ” 

          “The orange rose…”

          “ – you placed on the bathroom windowsill. Our bathroom was – still is – all white: white walls, white ceiling, white sanitation chamber, white windowsill. But every day for at least a week there was this incredibly beautiful orange rose, almost like some kind of totemic sun, against this background of totalitarian – white. And each day, of course, it expanded, opened out, and seemed – ”

          “And seemed?”

          “ – extraordinarily excited. For what reason, exactly, I have never known, but I don’t think there has ever been – well, if not a day, at least a week – when I haven’t remembered that rose and thought about it. The contrast. Not just between the rose and the bathroom, but between the rose and the bathroom and myself.”

          “Now I remember. I used to sanitate naked and imagine my skin was becoming the petals of the rose. And when I stepped out of the sanitation chamber – ”

          “You believed for one moment of passionate empathy that you and the rose had become one.”

          “I truly believed. And when we made love I tore you to pieces with my fingernails because my fingernails had become thorns. And when we lay apart the sweat on my skin had become the dew on the petals of a rose. And when I died on the bathroom windowsill – ”

           “When you died…”

“ – I was reincarnated as someone the same, but not the same. As some new version, like a composer’s variation on a theme. I cracked and peeled and flayed myself, and the sound I made was like walking over pebbles on a beach and at the same time peeling a strip of sellotape off a sheet of glass. I was realized as metal and silver and glistened like the underside of the lid on a jar of honey when the jar is new. Do you remember?”

“One cannot remember what one never knew. I remember the dead petals on the bathroom windowsill. I remember the texture of them in the palm of my hand. I remember the long lacerations and the curling wood-shavings of skin when we made love. But memory is a genie that constantly reshapes its own bottle. Indeed, I often wonder where memory ends and fiction begins.”    

          The room beyond the room that was orange was a room that was entirely black. She said,

          “The taxi driver turned left instead of right. A blind alley. Sheets of newspaper blowing around the fire-escapes. A cat with enormous yellow eyes caught in the headlamps. A woman’s scream coming from an upstairs window. A slamming casement. A sound of breaking glass.”

          “Where did we end up?”

          “In a bar on the waterfront. In a bar that catered solely for fishermen and longshoremen and all the rough types of women that rely on both. A bar divided from the sea by an all-pervading smothering jungle of masts and spars and impenetrable fog. A bar where, when the door swung open, all the ghosts of the dead and the drowned crammed like a sickening mist through the aperture, small wisps of them, that might’ve been fingers or toes, trickling across the spit-stained beer-stained wooden floor.”

          “I remember. I wore a white roll-necked sweater and a jacket with brass buttons. I was sitting next to a Chinaman who was drinking bourbon and smoking a marijuana cigarette. The bartender had J E S U S tattoo’d across the fingers of his right hand and S A T A N tatoo’d across the fingers of his left. I remember an atmosphere of permanent dampness and suppressed violence and hopeless grief.”

          “I remember the foghorn. In fact, that’s all I remember. What are those birds that fly by night over the ocean?”

          “Albatrosses?”

          “No. Well, maybe they do, but those aren’t the birds I’m thinking of. I imagined I was one of those birds in silent passage over an unknown sea, guided only by a lozenge of amber-colored light shining dimly through the mist and the sound of a foghorn reminding me that I was close to land.”

          “Frigate birds?”

“That’s right, thank you. Frigate birds. Now I remember. They can fly for weeks, alone in the darkness of the night and then alone above an empty sunlit sea.”

She shivered suddenly and touched his arm, the first actual contact there had been between them. She said,

“The final room can only be red. It will have a red floor, a red ceiling and red walls. It will be entirely red.”

“Do you remember Prince Prospero?”

“I remember travelling to Paris, to the Left Bank, to meet Modigliani. To have my portrait painted in imitation of Jeanne. That was before we met.”

“If we enter the red room swiftly, and exit it with equal speed…”

“There is a film where they run through The Louvre in Paris.”

“There is a novel where they steal a painting called The Rhinoceros from Trafalgar Square.”

“There are birds called frigate birds… What was I wearing when we first met?”

“You were wearing toreador pants and a white cotton shirt.”

“I remember. I remember everything. I remember climbing out of a yellow taxi and entering a tall building. I remember looking up and seeing storey upon storey of galleries, voices echoing, and rows upon rows of expressionless faces looking down. Awful faces, disturbing faces, faces without noses or mouths or eyes, but still those voices, those echoing voices, passing some kind of judgment, issuing some kind of sentence in response to an unspecified crime.”

“Where does memory end and fiction begin?”

 “What color were my toreador pants?”

“The same color, I guess, as worn by the average toreador”

“White stained with red and smeared with brown sand… Shall we enter the last room – slowly, like tourists?”

“If you think it would do – ”

“Any good?”

“ – any good.”

“We ought to wear sunglasses and Japanese cameras.”

They stood very straight and assumed self-consciously serious expressions. They looked at each other and nodded, allowing themselves just the slenderest of smiles. They touched fingertips briefly before letting their hands fall. She said,

“If the next room does have a red floor, a red ceiling, four red walls…”

“As it certainly must.”

He said nothing further. They left the room that was entirely black, black floor, black ceiling, black walls, the echoes of their heels diminishing as they disappeared – disappeared. Disappeared the way puppets disappear into ventriloquists’ boxes. Disappeared the way harlequins disappear through trap-doors in Pimlico or Prague.

Just – disappeared.

*

Harry sat down beside me, the gun on his lap. He said,

          “Hey, kiddo.”

          “Uh, huh.”

          “Nobody’s breathing out here except us.”

          I looked along the shore and saw Billy Ray laid out on the sand, his feet facing the ocean, a bottle of beer still upright in his outstretched hand. Eight-Ball had disappeared behind a couple of old rowboats drawn up on the beach. They had been overturned and, in the uneasy half-light of early morning, resembled strange creatures washed up by a storm. I said,

          “I hate it when the night’s over but the day won’t start.”

          In the forty or so minutes since we drove onto the beach the sea had changed from purple to red to an urgent cobalt blue. The sun, however, had stubbornly refused to rise and was caught between the green horizon and the orange sky like a buoy with horizontal blue and yellow stripes stuck in a slick of tar. Or a balloon, I thought, with too much weight in its basket that can’t get above the rooftops. I took a pack of Luckies out of my shirt pocket and Harry took one and I took one and then Harry went around the back of the car and got us two more beers. He had a bottle-opener on his key ring. He said,

          “How ’bout we drive down to Slatz’ Diner, get some breakfast? Bacon and eggs and home fries. Coffee and cold beer.”

          “Okay.”

          Harry handed me his beer bottle while he was reversing. He swung the wheel over and looked up in the rear-view mirror. He caught my eye. He said,

          “I wouldn’t worry ’bout Billy Ray nor Eight-Ball.”

          “I wasn’t.”

          We weren’t. Harry’s 1958 Thunderbird turned off the beach and back onto the road. The sky in the rear-view mirror glowed a kind of sick feverish orange. I lit a cigarette and rolled down the passenger-side window and watched the sun stuck in the ocean get smaller and smaller until it was too small to see.

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