Antonie awakens with the cotton sheet of the bed making a tent over his head. His first sensation is that he is slippery, his back and buttocks pasted to the bed in his own sweat.
Each time he breathes, the sheet comes in and out with him, and with it comes that same metal taste in his mouth. In his feverish state, he imagines that he is tasting the muzzle of one of his guns.
There is another taste too, the sour twinge of blood, and something else he cannot identify. He fears the taste and the accompanying odor, because there is death lurking in both, the scent is clear evidence, he believes, of his own rapid decay. Gathering his energy into one limp hand, he pulls the sheet from his mouth. He fills his lungs with fresh air, and he gags, and coughs, and there is immense pain in his chest when he tries to sit up. Just then, it occurs to him that no one is sitting beside the bed, offering him a cup of water, a teaspoon of soup. There is no one praying or mopping his brow or smoothing his hair or saying soothing things to him in Spanish, as Señora does. No he is lying in this sickbed very much alone.
Where have Señora and Renata and even Tango gone? He asks himself, how could all of them have abandoned me when I am so very weak, so terribly hot, when I can barely reach for a glass?
He pushes himself up to both elbows. He knows what he must do. But who will help him? Who will walk the four steps across the room, bend down to the floor, reach for the chamber pot that he's got to use so desperately right now?
His lower lip shudders. Utterly exhausted, he falls back onto the bed.
In that moment, a flurry of Spanish music fills his head. There is the sound of a guitar, someone playing a fluid arpeggio coming up from downstairs. There is hearty laughter and loud catcalls, too, a raucous of men’s sounds mixed with glasses slamming on wood, and occasionally, he would swear, a female voice ringing high above the rest.
Eyes closed, he has a scene before him, and it has a clarity that he hasn’t had for weeks. It is the music that calls him, reminds him of a long ago place and time when he and Renata danced as children. There now is Renata dipping forward, careful even as she swivels and bends, stepping left, then right, making a series of tight turns with one arm curved so gracefully overhead. The whole while she is dancing she also smiling into his third eye, laughing too at his awkward attempts at dancing. Only too painfully, he is reminded that he wasn’t the perfect partner. Anything but.
“Please, go slower, slower,” he would plead. Or, “show me again, Renata, just once more show me how to complete the turn.” At that, her laughter would ring out. She could be cold and heartless in her ridicule.
“Oh Antonie you are hopeless I’m afraid. Will you never manage to learn these steps?” She would resist, but he made her show him again. The ruffles of her dress would twist this way and that, and she would lift her arms and flat torso and flare her fingers and skirt and proceed. And at the end, she would say one sentence that went straight to the core of her motion: “Just make it look like poetry,” she declared.
Now, from downstairs, a loud peel of female laughter erupts. After all these years, Antonie surely knows that laugh. The sound of it creeps like cold water down his spine, and simultaneously, as if stiffening him, it pulls him up into a semi-upright position in his bed. He fumbles for the table, and is hardly able to take the cup of water in two trembling hands. He drinks, water dribbling down his chin. In the next moment, the cup drops, spilling its contents into his lap.
Recoiling, Antonie rolls to one side, and lies there, panting, his mouth wide open, the front of his nightshirt now soaked as wet as the cloth of the back. Again the laughter rises from downstairs, and with it, the guitar gets louder. His eyes fall shut, and now, it is not clear but doesn’t he hear the clatter of her metal cleats on wood?
“Dear God, could she…would she…has she actually agreed to dance down there…in the bar?”
His heart gallops as he forces himself to the edge of the bed. Driven now by a vision of her in the black and red dress, he pushes himself to a sitting position again. He moves his legs off the side of the mattress, and rising unsteadily, he gropes for the mahogany headboard. But wait, this is not his bedroom at home. His hand meets only the wall. Ah but that wall is all he needs, it gives him a place to lean as he stands. Eyes shut, sweat glazing his face, he rises and moves inch by inch toward the door.
“I will…I will get…down there,” he groans, lunging for the door. Taking hold of the handle in two hands, he pulls the door open and rivets himself against the doorframe. A cheap gilded mirror greets him in the hall, and in the first horrible moment, he wonders who that pathetic creature he faces is, and where he himself went?
His pallor is deepening to a deathly pale purple. His lips are a mixture of grey and blue. But he pulls his attention away from the mirror. Now is not the time to worry for his appearance. The staircase looms ahead.
Suddenly, a wind catches the door behind him and slams it shut.
The sound is enough to push him forward to his knees. He falls to two hands and crawls unsteadily toward the first step. When he reaches it, oddly enough, the step begins to blur; then it turns wavy, and actually disappears. He rubs his eyes and the step returns. Collapsing to a seated position, he brings his legs around. His bare feet slap the wooden step. That sound reaffirms him, yes, he is still of this world, and that realization serves to propel his body forward. He sinks to the second step, the third, the fourth.
And there he collapses into the grimy yellow wallpaper of the staircase, a wallpaper all of ivy and rosy flowers, a faded pattern that is greased in stains and handprints. He adds his own hands to the wall. His head collapses too.
By all rights, that should have been the last step for Antonie, because he is far too dizzy now to go any further. But no. So motivated is he that he fights the lightheaded swinging feeling behind his eyes, and uses every bit of might to reach up to grab the hand rail. Holding tight with both hands, he extends one skeletal foot further down the staircase. The whole leg trembles. But his foot is sure in purpose, and now it meets a step exactly half-way down the staircase. The sound of that foot landing squarely, that slap of skin against wood. That helps him once again. Pulling up on the railing, he actually achieves an upright position. He stands, wavering, staring into the hotel lobby, his eyes fiery bright.
“You…you…” he cackles, and if he could, he would shout out the word he is trying to form: “whore.” But nothing emerges. There is not an ounce of air to carry any sound. Instead, he simply glares, his eyes frozen wide. And points one bony finger.
There on a long table in the center of the bar stands Renata, poised, her arms raised, her head thrown back, her throat naked and alluring. Thankfully, he cannot see her face clearly, but he doesn’t need to. What he sees in his mind’s eye is sufficient to confirm his worst fears: that she is wearing the dress, And worse, she is wearing her most seductive smile. Below her shapely legs, the table is surrounded by leering men, all of them shouting, leaning their glasses and beer mugs inward, raising their fists, grabbing below her ruffles to fondle her thighs.
The words he wants to utter – “I will kill…kill…you…her…and all of you,” never come out; he sputters, and only bloody yellow foam rises to his lips. Gracefully, as if he is a diver, he tips forward and thens his legs give way, and his hand comes loose from the railing and he spills forward like a feather drifting into the wind. In the next moment he knows only one thing, that he is collapsing, tumbling down the staircase, and that the pounding and slapping of his body falling on the wooden steps is no affirmation of anything but his complete weakness.
At least, though, it brings the sound of the guitar to a sudden halt.
Renata, taking in the fact that her cousin is sprawled across the bottom of the stairs, drops to her knees and hauls her ruffled dress to the edge of the table. Hands grope her, but with a few swift kicks of her steel-heeled shoes, she fights off her admirers.
“Please!” she yells, swinging her legs to the floor. Shouting rings out: “Hey, we want more,” and “I paid for a full show, where are you going, sweetheart?” and “What happened, señorita, the fun’s just started.”
Renata ignores them all and elbows her way to her cousin. Crouching beside Antonie, she wipes a string of blood from the corner of his lip. Cradling his bruised head, she strokes his tumble of wavy black hair.
“Antonie, oh Antonie, I told you to stay up there in your room,” she murmurs.
His mouth is slack, and his coal black eyes fall shut. He wants to spit in her eye, because that’s what his gut urges, but he is far too embarrassed. Because in all of the commotion of falling, he has soiled himself, his urine has soaked his cotton gown, and it is still leaking down his legs and the ruffles of Renata’s beautiful red satin ruffled dress.
All he can do is lie there, in intense humiliation, glued to the stairs. All he wants to say to her is, “you are no better than a whore, a whore,” but he has no breath to speak the words, and not an ounce more energy to move his lips or even, to open his eyes and cry.