The Price Is Bright - 006
The airbus landing in Dubrovnik was a bouncy affair. As Vladimir, the Russian businessman seated next to me, described it, jumpy.
–Call me Dimitri, he said, pulling his black jacket’s lapels straight and stiffening his spine. This pilot he likes to jump on the landing, but five jumps or less and there are no deeficulties. More than five and we have, how you say, complications.
I am not a fan of air travel, less so when there are known to be possible complications. Apparently a good portion of the passengers were regulars on this flight. As we approached touchdown they began to murmur and then on the first bounce counted out–one, two, three, four, and then cheers, backslaps and bets being paid off as after the fourth bounce we maintained constant contact with the tarmac.
I checked my Blackberry; e-mails from Bibi and Waverly appeared. Bibi gave me the name of my contact and hotel information. Waverly wrote to inform me they had managed to secure a Times book review for the book and it looked to be a favorable notice, much like the surprising starred reviews in PW and Kirkus, which I was glad to have, tho a bit mystified and disturbed that she’d be so shocked that the collection had been so well received after the grief given me by her for doubting her editorial judgment in a few matters.
Other than these two there was only one, a test e-mail from Rick in Bibi’s office, or so he said he was, but as on multiple visits to meet with Bibi prior to departure I’d never met him: it was strange, especially as he informed me he was the demographic research specialist and would be sending me the order of poems I was to read prior to each engagement. At the end of her e-mail Bibi only confirmed that I should read the poems strictly in the order Rick gave me. What she didn’t say but seemed to imply was that there would be serious repercussions if I deviated from the proscribed order, which I took to be what Mark had meant as needing me to follow orders.
The Croatian customs official viewed me as a definite curiosity.
–A poet, reading here in Dubrovnik in English?
–Yes, I said.
–And then you will travel from Dubrovnik, he said.
–I have a few days before my next reading so I might just do some tourist-type things, you know.
–I see, he said, and stampt my passport with a neon red immigration seal. Enjoy your stay.
According to the e-mail Bibi sent while I was in transit my contact’s name was Catherine Ragusa. As I exited the customs line to the terminal, I saw a young woman with brown hair with golden highlights holding a sign with my name. I walked over to her, extended my hand.
–Catherine, I said.
–Ah, yes. Not too many bounces on landing, I see, glad you made it, she said and gave a slight bow. Do you have much luggage?
–No, only this pack here, I replied.
–Good, my car is small so as long as you don’t have a steamer trunk we should be fine, she said and turned and started to walk toward the door quickly.
I followed, trying to keep up with her fast pace as we moved thru the doors to the parking lot outside. The car she stopt at was a dusty blue KGB-type box coupe. She unlockt the doors and I threw my pack on the back seat and climbed in to discover there were no seatbelts.
She started the engine and put it in gear, pulling out. As we merged into traffic, leaving Zracna Inka Dubrovnik, heading northeast it became apparent over the thirteen miles from the airport to the old town of Dubrovnik that she had learned to drive from watching old Streets of San Francisco reruns on Croatian TV, her technique being strictly grounded in 1970s car chases. I was tempted to look out the rear window to see if we were being pursued.
–The reading is tomorrow night at Lazareti, in one of the old lazar houses which used to house arriving caravans for, um, quarantine. Now artist studios, there is one with a small theatre. You read there, she said. From sixteenth century, very poetic.
–Sounds like it, I said. Hope there aren’t any lingering ailments left there.
–What, she said, looking over at me.
Deciding I’d rather she watch the road, I mumbled,
–Nothing, a silly joke.
–Oh, she said. The lazareto are on Frana Suplica. Your room is old hotel, really villas, called Grand Villa Argentina, across street from Lazareti, very easy even for drunk poet.
–I’m not really a drunk poet, you know, I said. I mean I drink but it is not a constant state of consciousness for me.
–A joke, she said, and turned to smile at me.
I smiled back but said nothing more as I again preferred her attention be on the road. It was a quick trip to the front of the villas. The guidebook had said a thirty-minute drive from airport to town. It took us ten, with a correlated reduction of years taken off from fear and anxiety. I sat still for a moment once the car stopt as if waiting for my consciousness to catch up to my corporeal body as we had seemed to travel faster than the spirit could tolerate. I lookt over at the Villa Argentina. There were three traditional villas, sandstone colored with red tiled roof and one modern villa built in the center of the semicircle which looked somewhere between a Frank Gehry interpretation of a Dubrovnik villa and the end product of a Frank Lloyd Wright Mediterranean drunk.
Catherine got out and came around to the curbside door of the car, and when I hadn’t stirred (I was still mentally checking in with all my body’s components to make sure all had survived the ride), she opened my door, pulling me out and reaching back in to remove my bag. Wonder if I should tell her about the fantastic new safety devices in use in the US called seat belts, but figured retro-fitting the car would be a waste as should it be involved in an accident, one was probably better accorded a chance of survival by being thrown from it on impact.
–Well here we arrived, she said, and stept back to let me exit.
–I see. Looks very interesting, a blend of old and new, I guess, I said.
–The new building was a contest winner for architecture. There were originally four villas all of the same style but in Serbian aggression war Dubrovnik was shelled for seven months and one villa did not survive, Catherine said as we walked to the office in the new villa.
–A prize winner, huh, I said, from a Croatian architect?
–No, she said. A high school student did a collage of modern buildings that the judges said was truly original. But they hired a real architect to do final design.
–Well that’s reassuring. I would be worried if a teenager had drafted it. I mean I know your schools are probably very good but I doubt there is much structural engineering taught at the lyceum. So has this student designed any other buildings in Dubrovnik or is this his sole creation?
–Actually a she and no I haven’t, she said, looking at the glass paneled walls before we walked thru the doors.
After she checked me in and walked me to my room, Catherine went to get some water and lunch for us to eat. Before she left she led me out on the stone balcony and pointed out the Lazareti along the shore where the reading would be.
I opened a bottle of šljivovica, a Croatian brandy, left as a welcome gift. Standing out on the balcony I watched the light traffic into the old town as the afternoon faded and the setting sun over the water limned the passing bands of clouds with golden edges. Putting down my glass on the railing of the balcony, I pulled out the Blackberry and sent my wife an e-mail telling her the hotel name and that I was well. I thought it strange she’d not replied to my earlier e-mail from the layover in Paris, but attributed it to her having to watch our kids as they did not leave one with any spare time or moments to reflect on much, much less time to write e-mails until they were tucked in for the night.
The morning was overcast. From the balcony where I ate breakfast I saw the water had become choppy with windblown whitecaps chopping the normally deep blue water. Catherine knocked just as I was coming out of the shower. I let her in and dressed.
–Do you want to see the town, she asked, pouring herself a cup of coffee.
–Certainly, I said.
We left the hotel and walked down Frana Suplica toward the old town.
–Have you worked for the company long, or are you more of a freelance operator, I asked her as we walked. Her face got very white and looked almost panicked.
–The company, she said, what do you mean?
–Whalen, Marks and Greene, my publisher, I said. Why, what did you think I meant.
–I misunderstood, sorry, she said, no I am how you said, freelance, I work for several companies, helping facilitate visitors.
–Oh, I said. Are there lots of us that come thru Dubrovnik.
Her face lookt troubled again. And she started looking intently at the buildings we were walking past, which seemed strange to me as there was not anything particularly unique about them.
–Sorry, lots of you, how do you mean, she said.
–Poets, writers, you know. Lots of us stopping here for readings, I said.
–Oh, sorry, my brain like wet oatmeal this morning I guess, she said. Not too many. Readings are very special events; there is a great Croatian love of art and literature.
–Oh, I said. So what do you do when not facilitating visitors? We were entering the old town now, walking thru a gate in the thick fortress walls. Instead of answering me she began to give me a tour and history lesson.
As we came down the worn stone steps to the Placa my Blackberry started to beep. I pulled it out and saw that the order of poems for the reading was being sent.
–Important news, Catherine asked.
–No, not really, I said. Just the order of the poems I’m supposed to read tonight.
–Well, she said, from what I know of their research and marketing that’s very important.
Just then a teenaged boy ran past us going down the stairs and grabbed the Blackberry from my hand without slowing.
–Shit, I said, he took my—but Catherine was gone, flying down the steps after the boy.
–It’s okay, I yelled after her, they can just send a new one. But she was running after the boy so I started running too.
The boy was about twenty feet ahead of her as he went along the edge of the Placa and then back up a side street. She closed to about ten feet back as we went thru a series of small streets around the perimeter of the Placa, then I guess deciding he had a better chance in the open space of the square he turned back to go down some steps to the wide open center when Catherine launched herself from the steps, tackling him as he reached the bottom step, knocking the wind from him on contact.
She pulled the Blackberry from his coat pocket and gave it to me as I ran up.
–You know, I said, out of breath, easily replaced, wouldn’t hurt to, you know, get a new one.
–No, she said. Thievery is not some thing we can just let go. She twisted the boy’s arm and pulled him up into a position of submissive walking and pushed him over to a policeman standing in a corner of the Placa.
When she returned to me she took me by the arm and we headed to a restaurant for dinner.
–It really would’ve been okay, I said.
–No, she said, it really wouldn’t have been. The poem order for your readings is important. A lot of time and research went into it so you need to have it. And unpunished thievery is the sign of a degenerate society.
It was hard to argue with someone so determined, and in any event I had no desire to get her mad at me.
After dinner at Proto, we walked back toward the Lazareti, going into one of the houses nearest the shore. It had a wide open front room with chairs and small speakers standing in the front, a table on the left with glasses and about a dozen bottles of Croatian wine. I poured us two glasses as we stood around and waited for people to arrive for the reading.
After about half an hour, and close to the start time, a little more than fifty people had taken seats. Then a man walked to the podium and began speaking in Croat, I guess introducing me as I only understood my name mentioned a few times. When he stopt there was a small amount of applause and Catherine pushed me toward the front.
I set my glass of wine on the podium and pulled the Blackberry, opened to the poem order, out, and opened the book to the first poem on the list.
–This is a poem called ‘Alexander on a hill in India’
How golden the cloud edges limn a day,
How warm the voice which pulls back
a hotter intent
so spring these leaves
early on the branch
tender serrated green cutting last cold
where we rise to embers of the
last night’s dying fires
there are no memories worth dying for
only a dream’s logos demands such devotion.
As I moved on to the next poem on the Blackberry list I felt a certain liberation at not having to decide what to read next, but at the same time I felt an urge, which I was able to resist at the time, to rebel and read whatever the hell I wanted.
After the last poem, some of the audience came up to me. One man, however, I noticed in the back reading from the book as I read, left as soon as I was done. I had expected questions, but then thought of course of the shyness some of the most interested parties would be possessed by, remembering years earlier my own tongue-tied mumble when introduced to John Ashberry.
Catherine came up to me and handed me a fresh glass of wine and proceeded to act as translator though it seemed in certain ways she was acting more as a bodyguard, placing herself so that no one had direct access to me or could query me without her hearing, which I did not mind as I suddenly felt a very heavy fatigue which increased as I drank more of the wine until I finally indicated to Catherine my desire to leave.
Thanking the host, we left. I was barely inside my room at the villa before I was fast asleep.
The morning sun streamed thru the balcony’s French door as the curtains had not been pulled across. I did not remember falling asleep but woke naked in the bed. Catherine came from the bathroom, in a towel, her hair wet.
–You’re awake at last, she said.
–Yes, I suppose I am, I said, or this could still be a dream as I presume you are as naked under that towel as I am under these sheets.
–You’re a funny poet, she said, smiling, how else would I be after last night. You’re a naughty poet as well.
She removed the towel and began to dress, fastening a delicate black bra and stepping into matching panties. The contour of her body did not register with my memory, which was a great shame as it was a memory I would have preferred to be able to recall as the rising tent in the sheets plainly indicated.
–More, she said looking over at me, laughing, naughty and insatiable. We have to hurry tho, your flight is in three hours.
–My flight, I said, I thought I had a few days here.
–No, it came on your Blackberry this morning. Flight at 12:15 to Warsaw. I’ll drive you to the airport. You can read the details later, she said, approaching the bed in only her bra and panties. Pulling back the sheet, she leaned over and took me into her mouth. I was in the shower ten minutes later.
As we drove to the airport, I in a pang of guilt sent another e-mail to my wife, who still had not answered my previous five, which was beginning to concern me. I decided to try to call once I reached Warsaw if she hadn’t responded by then.
Catherine drove with the same intense disregard for traffic laws and other vehicles as upon my arrival. Traffic was lighter this time so it only took us eight minutes. We parked and went inside. Catherine went to the ticket counter and returned with my ticket.
–Thank you, I said, taking it from her.
–You’re welcome. Take care and be safe, you are a wonderful poet, and I worry for you. Last night and this morning by the way were not a part of my job description, whatever you may think or hear later, she said. She pulled my hands close to her chest and leaned into me, her head against my collar bone. Last night was me wanting something for me. Thank you, she said.
–Thank you, I said and kissed her forehead before she pulled back and gave me a light push toward the airport gates.
–If I ever come back to Dubrovnik, I said.
–You won’t, she said, but if you do, I’ll find you. And she walked back to the car as I turned to board my plane.
Summary Report #002
The call to Troubadour was placed by the editorial director. At the meeting she set up between Troubadour, herself and the publisher, all went as expected, if not better. He signed the contracts on the spot and received his check, the page proofs, and a BlackBerry with the discussed limited outgoing capabilities, and he was given the instructions to wait for the head of publicity to contact him for details of his tour. Copies of the book have now been distributed to all targeted assets and further copies sent ahead to each location. I am however becoming slightly concerned about Troubadour’s mental stability. As I mentioned when assessing him as a potential asset, he fit the criteria assigned except that we know he is married and lives with his wife and children. However, I have since discovered that he is not employed in the foreign rights contracts division of the Liveright Publishing Company. That publisher is out of business, and has been since the 1960s. He is in fact a building services engineer at Simon & Schuster, which means he is a janitor. But despite whatever misgivings this new information has produced we are quite simply too far along to suspend the operation unless Troubadour suffers some catastrophic break from reality. I believe him to still be in control of his mental facilities adequately to complete the project. Whether the employment story he gave was just a lie to impress or elevate his status or something that he truly believed is not known. We have decided however that for the safety of the operation all contact between him and his wife should be intercepted. Whether we can then allow for some correspondence or phone calls to go through will need to be a case-by-case decision should this isolation begin to have a negative effect on Troubadour. We will in any event need to maintain a constant vigilance and at the first sign of a worsening of his condition terminate the project if he is in reality suffering from some sort of delusional condition.