Here’s a quick synopsis:
“Expat American journalist Sam Kramer is burned out: too many dead bodies, too many wars covered, too little meaning in it all. He’s got a dead-end job at the Daily European as the correspondent for Vienna, where nothing happens now that the Cold War is over. And that is exactly how Kramer likes it.
But his private neutral zone is shattered with news of the suicide of Reni Müller, a German left-wing firebrand and Kramer’s long-estranged ex-girlfriend. To his surprise, Kramer suddenly finds himself the executor of Reni’s literary estate—but the damning memoir named in her will is nowhere to be found. Tracking down the manuscript will lead Kramer to the unsettling truth of Reni’s death, drawing him back into the days of the Cold War and showing him the dark side of the woman he loved.”
Reviewers at Amazon have been very enthusiastic about this book: “Tough as nails and tautly written,” noted one reviewer; “Wow, this was one heck of a ride!” noted another; a third called it an “action-packed mystery and thriller,” while yet another reviewer commented that “If you like noir and a ‘Third Man’ style of story (even though this is mid 90s)… you will like this book.” I agree with still a further reviewer in her assessment: “This is more than just a mystery or crime novel. There is an element of suspense and thriller mixed in that can really get your blood moving.” A Vine Voice critic also noted: “The book is a page turner, and I greatly enjoyed it. The plot is complex, and the historical details about middle-aged men and women trying to leave their radical youth behind them ring true.”
Sam Kramer first appeared in a couple of my early (unpublished) novels. In celebration of the publication of Basic Law, I post here a much more recent short story iteration of him .
Body Blows: A Sam Kramer Story
They weren’t at Steffi’s Gasthaus. Outside, one of the Alpin Korps home on leave was having a wine with his girlfriend, his feathered peak cap on the table between them. He sat in his shirtsleeves to show how tough he was. His girl was cold and it didn’t look good on her. She had the kind of skin that mottles in the cold.
I tried The Owl next and found them in a rear booth by the ceramic stove. They didn’t see me at first and continued their silence. His hands were on the table, turning a foam-flecked glass of beer.
She looked up, saw me coming, and brightened.
“You weren’t at Steffi’s,” I said.
“Were we supposed to be?” Phil had his bitchy voice on, the one he usually reserves for opera twerps. I figured he had already told her.
“Look, you asked me to come along…”
“Sorry,” he said. “Sit down, Sam. We’ve been talking.”
She shook her head. “You’ve been talking.”
“Okay. I’ve been talking. I guess I’m not doing a very good job of it.”
She lit one of her little cigars and let smoke out her nose.
“No, you’ve been doing a terrific job of it, Phil. Absolutely first rate.”
“Maybe I should come back later.”
“No.” Marty took my hand. “Stay. Please.”
“I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal of it. It’s only for a couple of weeks. Most of my friends are happy for me. Right, Sam?”
“You mean everyone else already knows? I’m the last one you tell?”
“Look Marty. I knew you’d take it like this. That’s why I’ve been putting off telling you.”
“Did you know last weekend?”
He didn’t answer. I’d had about enough. They didn’t need a referee; they needed seconds.
She turned to me: “How long have you known, Sam?”
“I told him last week. Okay? And quit looking so damned betrayed. He’s my oldest friend.”
“You don’t sleep with him.”
“I don’t sleep with a lot of people.” He looked at her as if he was being very frank.
She slapped him. It left tiny red streaks on his cheek just like those on the girl at Steffi’s terrace.
I got up and left. Marty caught up with me on the street. She fell into step and put her arm through mine.
“I’m sorry you had to witness that, Sam.”
“So am I.”
“Can I go to dinner with you? I don’t want to be alone just now.”
We passed the old ramparts and turned out onto the Ring. I figured we could both do with a little exercise.
“Is this why he invited me?”
“You know Phil.” She tried to laugh. “Always looking out for his friends.”
A streetcar passed, dinging its bell at a car in the tracks. The linden trees bordering the boulevard were bare of leaves now, skeletons against the bruised sky.
“Have you heard from Paula?”
I told her I hadn’t.
“It’s really over then?”
“Too bad. You two were nice together.”
I thought about that, about what couples must look like to outsiders.
“We had our differences of opinion.”
She shrugged. “I guess we’re both castaways. What shall we do about it?”
I stopped, disengaging her arm from mine.
“I’ll tell you what we’re not going to do about it. We’re not going to your place or mine and have it off so that you can hold it over Phil.”
“You’ve got a very high opinion of yourself.”
“No,” I said. “I just know what I’d want to do if I were you. I just know the feeling. I’ve been there.”
She took my arm again. “Dinner is all I have on my mind. For now.”
So we had dinner together. She didn’t eat much; we drank one bottle of red and she wanted to share a second. I suggested we leave when she started talking about their sex problems.
Phil went on the road show two days later. I didn’t hear from him before he left.
Spence came into town the next week. I went out to Schwechat Airport to meet him. He looked as ragged and furry-headed as ever.
They gave him a rough time at customs, even taking the rubber stoppers off his aluminum pack frame. They went through all the pills in his shaving kit. He flipped me the peace sign when he saw me waiting on the other side of the protective glass.
Spence, despite his appearance, does no partake of anything stronger than alcohol. And he is a bit of a hypochondriac. He must have every pill on the market in his kit, but not the ones they were looking for.
They waved him on. His pack lay in shambles at his feet. He repacked it right there, taking his time doing it, getting great joy out of holding up the line.
“Nice welcome,” he said as he passed the barrier.
“I laid it on specially for you.”
We embraced. I had that slightly uncomfortable felling I always get when hugging a man. The gesture is supposed to show that you are secure enough in your masculinity that you feel no such qualms.
“I’ve had better, fellow next to me, some kind of very freaky Rotarian or Oddfellow, he showed me his badges, he spills his Bloody Mary into my lap during a monsoon over Bangkok. Damned sad it wasn’t over Rangoon. That would have made a pretty story. In a monsoon over Rangoon. Would’ve happened to you, I bet. You’ve got all the luck, Sam.”
We caught the airport bus just as it was leaving and had to carry Spence’s pack on board with us. The commuting businessmen shook their heads. I’d forgotten the feeling of public disapproval.
“And then over the Indian Ocean the plane decided to get Sick. Coughing fit. Overworked little buggy, I imagine. Changed planes at Damascus.”
“Spence, the world traveler. What’s Damascus like?”
“Very dry, Sam. I’ll level with you. I do not think I would care to do much more than layover at Damascus. There’re Arabs all over the place.”
“They live there.”
“That shows you how much sense they’ve got.”
“Doing Great. Loves this posting. Happy to be out of Central America.”
“Oh, he didn’t have it so bad there. Nice flat in the diplomatic compound. Duty-free booze. Home leave every year. All the perks. But you should see the place he’ got in Kat.”
“Right up Carter’s alley.”
“He’ll go someplace,” I said.
“I’m not sure he wants to. But yeah, I guess he will. His place is way up the side of this mothering mountain with nothing around but sherpas and servants.”
“You loved it.”
“Stayed two months. Bad form on my part, but I couldn’t help myself. It was so damned beautiful.”
“All on the taxpayers’ expense.”
“As always. You ought to see their kid.”
The bus dragged on past the flaming stacks of the Schwechat oil refinery. We were quiet for a time.
“Most damned beautiful country you can imagine, really.”
I didn’t think he was referring to the urban sprawl south of Vienna.
He settled back in the reclining chair. “But not worth it, you know. Carter’s changed.”
“Because he kicked you out after two months? In that case I’m afraid you’re going to think I’ve changed even more drastically.”
“No. Just changed. You know?”
I nodded. We all had.
He didn’t get around to Paula until the third beer at Steffi’s.
“I heard about it from Carter.”
“I would’ve written. I never have your address.”
“One step ahead of the bill collectors. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Now.”
“You two were nice.”
“Jesus, what is this? The whole world seems to be broken up about us.”
“The wake is not for the deceased, you know that, Samuel. You two made it seem possible, is all.”
“We kept up a brave front.”
“Don’t ruin it now with post mortems. It was more than that. You know it.”
I counted the waiter’s pencil-notch tally on the coaster. I was buying.
“I hear they got the first snow up there.”
“Okay. So I’ll lay off. I hope there’s ten frotting feet of it. I can’t wait to get back on skis.”
“Enough for some early cross-country stuff. We’ll go up next week.”
“You can get the time?”
“It’s all arranged. I’m ahead on stories.”
Voices came from the outer room. English. Laughter. A joking tone.
“Sounds like the fleet’s in.” He ducked his head behind his beer mug.
“You hiding from somebody?”
“Let’s just say that I made a few unpleasant suggestions to the wrong people last time I passed through town.”
The voices got louder. Their owners came in the back room. They were mostly young American singers from the choruses around town, friends of Phil. Marty was with them, a good looking young guy in tow.
The way she gushed it out I figured she was in her cups.
“Hey, Marty. Heard from Phil lately?”
“Let’s not talk about boring things tonight.” She stared at Spence. “Meet my friend, Floyd. Isn’t that a great name?”
Spence looked up, checked the others to make sure he didn’t know them.
“As in Patterson?” I said. We shook hands. He smiled at the lame joke. He was a nice kid.
“I read all your stuff, Mr. Kramer. I string for AP.”
“You’ve got a fan, Sam. Now your turn. Who’s your friend?”
I introduced Spence. We shook hands all round. We are very polite people.
“No word from Phil, huh?” I was being persistent. I wanted to see her squirm.
She rumpled my hair like we were old playmates. Marty is not the least bit playful.
“He wrote me once,” I said. “From Hamburg. They were staying over an extra night. Said the Germans were eating up the show.”
She smiled. “They also eat blood sausage.”
I let it go. They joined us without even saying good-bye to their friends. The young guy, Floyd, started talking shop. I usually don’t like to. I’ve had enough when I put the cover on the typewriter in the afternoon. But he spoke with such pleasant enthusiasm that soon he had me swapping stories and names. He’d worked for a former editor of mine.
Spence and Marty seemed to be getting on pretty well, too. He soon had her laughing. He’s very good at that. Genuine, unselfconscious laughter. She’s really a pretty girl when she isn’t aware of herself. Good teeth and a nice strong nose and eyes that tell you somebody is alive behind them. But she is usually so horribly caught up in herself and in any attempt at putting her down that she has a phony look to her. A hard, brittle, brassy-broad look.
That’s probably what attracted Phil to her. He loves them like that. And when he learned that that wasn’t really she, then he started trying to hurt her. To get rid of her.
She draped an arm over Spence’s shoulders.
“I like your friend, Sam.”
I looked at the kid and he was looking at the draped arm and it all began to get very uncomfortable then. Spence has absolutely no scruples when women start coming on that way and I wasn’t sure about the kid’s scruples, either. He obviously was not going to want to play the cuckold in front of me, especially when he was cuckolding an old friend of mine already.
“Big day tomorrow, Spence.” I called for Franz and he tallied up the bill.
“Let me get this one, Mr. Kramer.”
I patted the kid on the shoulder. He was going to need all his money with Marty.
“Why so early to bed?” Marty looked like she was suppressing a hiccup.
Spence kissed her hand. “In training, you know.”
“Gallantry is not dead. Why don’t you ever kiss my hand, Sam?”
“I’ve a horror of germs.”
She ignored this and asked Spence: “Training for what?”
“The great cross-country tournament. Wedling and schussing our merry way.”
“That’s downhill skiing.” This from the kid.
“An authority. Sam, we have a bloody ski authority here amongst us.” Then to Floyd: “Don’t tell me you’re part of the backpacking Pepsi generation.”
“Lay off Spence. Let’s get some sleep.”
“Are you two off to that secret village of yours, Sam?”
Spence answered, “There’s no secret about it, madam.”
I hadn’t noticed it before, but Spence was also quite a few sheets to the wind.
“Lovely alpine Dreamland.”
“I’d love to go.”
“The more the merrier.”
“Time for bed, Spence.”
“Can’t I go, Sam?” She turned to Floyd. “You’ll take me, won’t you, handsome?”
“I’d be happy to.”
He honestly sounded happy about it, too.
“See? All escorted and everything. I won’t be in your hair at all.”
“It’s not his hair he’s worried about.”
She laughed again at this Spence joke, but now she was no longer carefree and unselfconscious about it.
“We’ll see,” I said and got Spence out of there.
“Johann Strauss was one well hung dude.” Spence examined the statue some more.
“Dressed on the right.”
“By jiminy, Sam, you’re right. Fine eye for detail.”
“I’m a journalist, remember? And that’s hardly a detail.”
“Imagine being the guy’s tailor. ‘Just leave them baggy at the knees, my good man.’”
We kept on walking through Stadtpark. It was getting cold. The wind was up off the little canal flowing through the park. There was one couple snuggled on a bench. They broke their clench when we passed.
“Great idea those two have. Should have stayed on with Margey.”
“Marty. And no, you shouldn’t. She’s trouble.”
“That’s what I mean. Fine strapping girl. Make a man warm in bed, all right.”
“She’d make it pretty hot for you out of it, too.”
“I know how to handle those types, Sam. Been doing it all my life.”
“Not this one, you don’t.” I told him about Phil.
“Too bad. A friend of yours. Really?”
“We play bridge and tennis. Is that friendship?”
“Good bridge player?”
“That settles it. Wouldn’t want to botch a good thing for you.”
We crossed over the street past the Intercontinental.
“Remember when they used to show the reruns of the Sunday football games?”
“Those were the good years,” I said.
“Maybe we should have a big people’s drink just for old-time sake?”
“If you want.”
It was warm inside; the carpets were soft underfoot. The doorman tried hard not to check Spence out. One never knows anymore who has money. I pitied the guy his job. There is no Burke’s Peerage for tourists.
The piano bar was something straight out of Kansas City. Two high class hookers were at the bar. They looked up with absolute disgust when we entered. The one with the black hair said something to the blond and she laughed that tight, scornful whore laugh.
Mike was still tending bar. He’d been at it for years.
“Been a long time, Mr. Kramer.”
I agreed. Spence eyed the ladies. Mike noticed.
“Things have changed all over,” he said. He was wiping martini glassed. Mike is the only barkeep I know who actually wipes glasses. I don’t think I’d recognize him without a towel and glass in hand.
“A couple of nightcaps, Mike. Any suggestions?”
Spence nudged me. “I say, Sam. I think that black-haired wench is in love with me.”
“She’s in love with the whole world.”
“No, really. She’s been making the most goddamned sexy eyes at me. I think I’m half in love with her, too.”
Mike set two snifters on the bar in front of us.
Spence looked at the glasses doubtfully.
“You know how to make a piña colada?”
“Never heard of it, sir.”
“God, Sam. What kind of bar do you take me to? Doesn’t make a piña colada. How about a Harvey Wall-Banger?”
Mike shook his head. He didn’t know how to take Spence.
Mike busied himself with his glasses.
Spence sipped at the brandy; he smiled at the glass as he placed it on the bar.
“Shake, brother. Anyone who serves a chap a good old brandy when asked for a nightcap must by a guy worth knowing.”
Mike shook his hand.
“He’s a poet, Mike. You’ll have to make allowances.”
“I’m not kidding you. That’s all they’re drinking in the U.S. bunch of goddamn drinks made for virgin cheerleaders. Coffee liqueur and crap all gobbed together. Lounging in their jogging shoes and Lacoste shirts. Sickening. Absolutely. Turns a man off his drink.”
“I know what you mean, sir.”
Spence squinted at him. “You been in the army?”
“Maybe you could do a fellow a favor. Knock it off with the sir. I think you’re talking to my dad or something.”
“When were you in the states, Spence?”
He turned on his stool, winking past me at the whores.
“Last year. I’m not exaggerating. Most goddamned messed up place you could imagine, Sam. They’re all goofy over there. Almonds, too. That’s another big drink at the bars. And whisky with cream in it. Fine Irish stuff and they crap it up with cream.”
I said. “Time must have missed that scoop.”
“Screw time. It’s not too late. When were you home last?”
It sounded strange to hear it called home. That’s what Paula used to call the States.
“Five years ago.”
“And you call yourself a journalist. You’re missing the story of the century. Candy drinks make buggers mad. Great lead.”
He fished for his empty glass, found it and looked sad.
“Michael, sir. May we have two more of the damn snake juice?”
He looked some more at the black-haired one.
“I really do think I am in love.”
“You can’t afford it.”
“You know what you are, Sam, old bubby. You’re out of touch. You been hanging around too long in this corner of the world.”
“You have to be somewhere.”
“But not so diligently. No. Not so diligently. You can’t fool old Spence. I know you. You’re a professional expatriate, that’s what you are.”
I didn’t say anything. He was too well oiled for comment.
“Professional expatriate. You’re a fucking dinosaur. They all died with the bright young things on the Riviera before the war.”
“And what are you?”
“Me? little old me?” He looked over my shoulder again. “God, but that bitch has got something.”
He raised Groucho Marx eyebrows at her. I could hear them laughing behind me.
“I’m a traveler, Sam. That’s what I am. No prejudices one way or the other. I am not a professional hater of my country.”
“I don’t hate the States…”
“You’re so out of touch! The States. That’s like calling San Francisco Frisco.”
“…I’m just indifferent to it.”
He wasn’t paying any attention. I didn’t know why I let him draw me.
“A traveler. That’s a humble enough profession, wouldn’t you say so, Sir Michael? I go all over the world. The world is my home. I am a citizen of the world. I do not cut myself off from any part of mother earth because of prejudices.”
I finished my drink. “Ready?”
“I think I want to infect Europe with herpes.”
I paid for the drinks. “You know where the apartment is from here?”
“You’ll have to ring.”
“Don’t wait up for me.”
Mike half saluted me as I pushed way from the bar.
“Oh, Mr. Kramer.”
I turned back. Spence was already with the girls.
“Forgot to ask,” Mike said. “How’s the wife doing?”
“Fine,” I said. “Just fine.”
The first three days the weather held cold and clear. We put up at the Post Hotel and had the place to ourselves. In the morning we would hear the first bus pull out of the village and it was our cue to meet in the breakfast room. The room faced north, to the jagged peaks of the Mesnerin. The owner liked to open the window in the early morning to get rid of last night’s tobacco smell and the snow smelled like sheets freshly line-dried. After a time the owner closed the windows and then his daughter would bring in the coffee and eggs and fresh rolls with thin slices of smoked ham, and always the little chilled glasses of plum schnapps that her father, the owner, put up himself each year.
We got in four good hours of skiing in the morning, breaking new trail in by the lake where the trees blocked the wind. In the shade there would be icy patches, but we soon came to learn them. By the time we did a few runs around the lake the sun had climbed above the trees and the early morning wind had died down. Then, out in the open, the sun would warm your back as you glided over the powder. Lunch was a big meal and we always started smelling it too early. The owner’s wife was a good cook, nothing fancy, and she could put together a meal to cure the hunger of high altitude and snow. This meal we ate in the stube. The wainscoting there was old and old, stained with years of polish and nicotine and was lined on top with water colors of the place done in thirties of this century. The paintings presented a history of the little village and the valley around it: the locals at work in the fields or over a glass of wine or bringing in the cows from the high summer pasturage. You could still see the same faces—grandsons and nephews—in the valley people today.
We drank only a beer at lunch and would get back out to the snow and ski until our thighs began to ache in the late afternoon and the yellow and black post bus came tooting into the village with its load of kids come home from school.
Before dinner Spence and I would go back to our rooms, I took a hot shower and climbed in under the thick eiderdown to read for an hour and sip on a little more of the owner’s schnapps. I kept a bottle of it in the room, chilled between the double windows. It was that perfect time of day, between things, when you want to be alone. The books were right for this, too. A history of the Cretan resistance for some advance reading on the book I was planning, and a page-turner that was almost as thrilling as its publisher blurbed it to be. I would start with the history and get to the point where I could see the people, not just know them by name, and feel the country, the heat of it and the wild cols and sudden gullies. Then I would switch to the thriller and, after reading some pages, see how the Cretan stuff might fit into a fiction format. This was a pleasant exercise, almost like working.
Then a light dinner and white wine from the Wachau and a nightly card game of Schnapps or Preference with the owner and one or two of his cronies. There was the local postmaster who was in the village band and the owner of the grocery store—a little man with a barrel chest who only played to win and did not talk. And who was not curious at all about the foreigners. It was nice to be among simple people who did not ask you about your life because for them there was only one life, and if you did not speak their language perfectly, it was not because you spoke another natively, but because you were like many of the other valley people, imperfectly educated.
After the cards, at about eleven, I would go for a head-clearing walk under a sky speckled with close stars, and then bed, the window open, and deep and untroubled sleep.
Not one dream of Paula.
That was the first three days. On Thursday the late afternoon bus brought more than school kids. Spence led us back toward the Post when he heard it coming.
“Surprise.” He yelled at me as he spread his strides out, long and efficiently rather than gracefully.
I saw her getting off as we neared the Post. She was wearing one of those very brightly colored parkas which city people seem to feel they need in nature. Spence stopped and waved at her. He was chuckling to himself. Then the kid got off in back of her, squinting at the bright light off the snow, and Spence stopped his contented chuckle.
I felt something sink in me like a tiny dying and knew that this was the end of our untroubled times here. Already there was a tension. It was something Marty thrived on.
“We’d better go meet them.” I poled my way to the roadside and stepped out of the skis, clapped the snow off them and slung them over my shoulder. Spence hung back a moment and then Marty spotted us and began waving. The kid looked sheepish as we approached.
“I hope you don’t mind, Mr. Kramer.”
“Silly. Of course he doesn’t. We’re invited.”
She smiled at Spence in back of me.
There were no books that afternoon. The comfortable in-between time was lost down in the stube with Marty drinking too many rum-teas too quickly. She was loud and abrasive and greeted the locals as they came in for their beers. The owner looked at me at first, slowly, and I tried to tone her down, to get her talking about her work. But I’d forgotten that singing was only hobby for her. Spending her inheritance was her full time job.
Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer, the city slime of it. When the postmaster came in and nodded at me, she giggled and saluted him. He took his beer from the bar and sat at the regulars’ table with the others. They were quiet and kept their eyes down to their beer glasses in front of them.
I got up. “Think I’ll have a shower before dinner.”
“What’s wrong, Sam? Am I embarrassing you in front of your beloved rustics?”
Floyd put a hand on her arm. Then he noticed her other arm hidden under the table. She was holding Spence’s hand.
“Yes, you are,” I said.
The shower didn’t work on me as it usually did. The hot water pounding on my shoulders was irritation like a fly in a nighttime bedroom. I got out, dried off with a stiff towel and poured myself a schnapps. I was determined to try and hold the good feeling this in-between time had had for me, but once in bed I couldn’t concentrate on either book. The cigarette I lit tasted stale. I smoked it down until it almost burned my fingers.
There was a knock at the door and I knew who it was but answered anyway.
She opened the door, wearing a towel around her hair.
“Such lovely hot water here.”
She looked contrite, standing there half in the door. Then she eyed the schnapps bottle.
“Offer a lady a drink?”
“If there were a lady present, you mean?”
She shut the door and came over to the bed.
“Mad at me?”
I nodded and lit another cigarette. She took one from the pack without asking.
“Nerves, I guess.” She struck three matches before she got her cigarette lit.
She smiled for a time and then drank out of my glass.
“Well, say something. Don’t just lie there.”
“There’s nothing much to say. Heard from Phil lately?”
She laughed, low and dry.
“Dear Sam. You always make a woman feel so wanted.”
She unwrapped the towel from her hair and fluffed at its wetness. Her neck looked so soft and vulnerable as she did this and she caught me looking at her.
“You’ve always liked me, haven’t you?”
“Tolerated would be closer to the truth.”
“You sanctimonious monk. What makes you think you’re so different from the others?”
“The thinking so. It’s not much, I admit. But it’s what I’ve made my life on.”
It looked like real tears were building in her eyes.
“Oh Christ. I don’t know what’s wrong with me sometimes. It’s like I want to destroy myself or something. Like I want people to hate me if I feel too close to them.”
“Which people? Phil or Floyd or Spence?”
“Like you, you prick. Like you.”
She slid a hand under the cover and brushed my thigh.
I felt the familiar warm pain spread over my middle.
“It’s not on, Marty. Too many people in between.”
“I’m not a bad woman, Sam. You know that. Don’t you?”
She squeezed my thigh.
“I guess I know that. I know other things, too.”
“We’re finished, if that’s what’s bothering you. I wrote him in Dusseldorf.”
“Just like that?”
She nodded, took her hand away and worked out snags in her hair.
“We’d be good for each other. We could get out of Vienna, far away. Build another life. You’d see.”
“Why me? Why not Spence? He’s the great traveler.”
Another one of her laughs.
I said okay. There was a kind of kid-like wickedness about it that I was beginning to enjoy.
She whispered something in my ear. Her hot breath tickled and I chuckled.
She was very solemn. “It’s true.”
“Poor Spence.” And I chuckled again.
“I love your laugh. Always laugh. Okay?”
She took off her robe and came under the comforter with me.
There are some actions that cannot be taken back. You can play at a thing and walk around it for a time and look at it from different angles. But when you step right up to it, face it and do not look away, then there it is. Sometimes it is by omission. Sometimes by commission.
Either way, you cannot revoke it. It is like a name on a contract. Final. And you go into it thinking it is only for the moment. Or not thinking at all.
We lay in the bed and it was dark and I knew Spence and Floyd would be waiting in the stube for us and all I could think of was the letter I had sent to Paula before leaving Vienna. The letter she would be getting in a couple of days. And there was no taking that back, either. All the midnight loneliness and false hopes poured out to her. And now this.
So here we were. And it was beginning all over again for me, all that old pain of it, the heart-sick of love-making back again form some far corner of forgetfulness.
And so here we were.
“I love your arms.” She kissed the crook of my elbow: little nibblngs with her lips.
“You’ll see. We’ll be good for each other.”
Maybe we would. I didn’t know. All I hoped was that we would be good to each other.
“They’ll be waiting.”
She didn’t reply for a time. A patch of sweat joined us at the hips. The warm smell of sex rose from under the comforter. It had started to snow again and some of the village kids were out in it. By the sound of their voices, they were having a snowball fight.
I thought some more about Spence and Floyd waiting downstairs for us, about the letter to Paula.
“This isn’t going to work.”
She held me. “I know.” She whispered onto my chest. “Don’t say it though, okay? Let’s just be together like this now. Forget the rest.”
There was a knock at the door and then Spence’s voice.
“Come on, Sambo. Dinner’s getting cold and the kid’s getting hot.”
The door was unlocked, but he didn’t try to enter. We heard his footsteps going back down the corridor, descending the stairs.
She giggled again. “Oops. I guess the party’s over.”
She jumped out of bed, threw on her robe and blew me a kiss from the door.
“Aren’t I just awful?”
Her wet towel still lay on the floor by the bed.
The three of them were downstairs by the time I got there. She sat between them on the bench against the wall.
“I was just talking about my adventure,” she said.
I sat on a chair across from them.
“Caught in the snow and all. I thought I’d freeze.”
She fluffed some more of her still wet hair.
“And silly me going out without a cap.”
“You should have told me you were going out. I was worried.”
Floyd tried to put his arms around her, but she wiggled away playfully.
“My big, strong, he-boy.”
The kid blushed.
And then Spence launched into one of his long stories. This one was about the sherpas of Nepal and how they sleep in their knitted caps, relieve themselves in their caps, would never go anywhere at any time without them. About how some had survived being snowed in at a base camp by eating them, a strand of wool at a time, like dainty bits of dirty pasta.
We got through the meal after that, but none of the locals came around for the nightly card game. Spence and I taught Floyd three-handed Schnapps and he took quickly to the game. He was competitive; he wanted to prove himself.
Marty moved to the other side of the table near me to give us room to play and acted like she was trying to figure out the rules. But she was only putting her hand on my thigh. The closer she got to me, the harder and more recklessly the kid played. He didn’t hold back. There was no caution in his play. He came out with the big guns and announced his hand, and Spence and I would sacrifice at first and then come in close for the body blows, hurting him, taking the wind out of him. Older, we lived by a kind of caution that he could not understand. And he hated us for it. You could see it in his eyes.
I left my door unlocked that night, but she didn’t come. I awoke to the clank and crunch of the chains on the morning bus. It had stopped snowing, but the ploughs had not got in yet. She was down in the breakfast room alone when I got there. The owner had left the window open on her and the steam from her coffee was drifting outside. It was his small revenge.
I closed the window.
“I was enjoying the air.”
We said nothing for a time. She was wearing that public face of hers now and there was no sense in trying to break through it.
Spence came down and then Floyd and breakfast, without booze, was civilized. Marty suggested that we go for a hike and the others thought it was a good idea. The new snowfall was tempting for me; breaking trail on skis would be the kind of hard work I needed this morning. But I agreed to the walk instead. The owner found a couple extra pairs of pressed felt gaiters for Marty and the kid.
The grayness of the early morning was lightening by the time we set off. There was a faint strip of yellow-gray sky on the horizon. Up past the Post was the village fire station, a small wooden building with a hand crank siren on its north wall. Once past that, we made our way through a meadow and onto a rock road following the rim of a gorge. In the summer the walking here was not fine: too exposed and the rock surface was hard on the feet. But now, with powder squeaking underfoot and a weak winter light on our faces, it was good walking and one of the only visible trails.
The road rose steadily out of the bowl of the valley. The pine and fir branches drooped with snow. For once Marty was quiet. None of us spoke. There was only the soft crunch and swipe of walking through the high powder and the rasp of breath in the cold. It bit deep into the lungs and was full of the tang of resin.
At the thousand-meter level the road left the gorge and cut across the side of the Mesnerin with views to the valley below. The tinny sound of church bells drifted up to us. It was eleven o’clock. The trail led off from here up to the final ascent.
“Everybody okay?” I said to Marty. “It’s still a long way from here.”
“We aren’t going to turn around, are we?” She looked to the others almost pleadingly. “You said we were going to climb a mountain.”
Floyd said, “We’ll climb the mountain.”
“And miss lunch.” Spence sighed.
“You’re always thinking of your stomach.” There was her wicked child laugh again.
“I think of other things, too.”
And so we continued. The strip of yellow on the horizon was gone now. I didn’t like the looks of the sky.
But Spence said it first. “Snow sky.”
“Look,” the kid said. “If you want to turn around, all right. But not because of the snow. There isn’t any snow in those clouds.”
Spence and I exchanged looks. The kid was returning the body blows now. We pushed on even though we knew better.
Marty was enjoying this.
The snow started halfway up the switchbacks.
“Too bad my cap’s acrylic,” Marty said. “Not much sustenance in polyesters.”
None of us laughed. The kid was beginning to look worried.
Spence was in the lead and stopped.
“Long way up.”
“Long way back down,” I said.
Floyd took out a map from his parka. “It shows a Schutzhaus up top.”
“It’s winter, remember?”
“It might be open. They are in the Dolomites.”
It was a nice try, bluffing through as if he knew the mountaineering game, but not even Marty was taken in.
Snow gathered on his map. He brushed it off and refolded it.
Marty looked at me. “What do you say, Sam?”
“It looks like you got your hike.”
“It’s not her fault.”
“Do piss off,” Spence said to him.
But the kid was persistent now, desperate.
“I say we push on for the summit.”
“No one’s asking you.”
Spence and he squared off like rival tomcats.
“Maybe it would be smartest just to go back down.” She licked a snowflake from her lips. “We could follow our tracks.”
Floyd grabbed her arm. “We’re going to the top of the fucking mountain!”
“Let go of me. I’m not going anywhere with you.”
But she wasn’t really struggling and the kid only then saw she was enjoying all this. All of it. And finally understanding her betrayal, he did a stupid thing. He slapped her.
“I said we’re going.”
So here we are, I thought. And there’s no going back now. Not in the only way that matters.
Spence jumped him, but the kid had some training. He dropped Marty’s arm, brought his hands up around Spence’s back and kneed him in the groin.
I moved in slowly, keeping my eyes on his abdomen, not on his head feints. He threw a wild punch that caught me on the left shoulder, but I was inside now and used short, sharp left jabs that stung my chilled fist. His face felt brittle like frozen meat and I kept jabbing, letting him use up his wind on right-handers. Waiting. Waiting. His eyes widened and he began panting in the numb snowfall. When I landed the right I felt the crunch of cartilage in his nose; then I moved in for some close work.
I stopped and let him fall to the snow.
“You bastard.” Crouched on one knee, he held his nose and cried. “You goddamn bastard. You broke my nose.”
The snow at his feet was flecked red.
Marty put her hand on his shoulder, but he jerked away from her. He looked up and there was a pink bubble at one nostril.
“Put snow on it. It’ll be okay.”
I picked Spence up out of the snow. He was still blowing hard from the knee jab. The look he gave me when he was on his feet, I knew that it was too late for that, too. He should have been the one to take the kid. But he didn’t. And that left me. And Marty.
“Can you walk?”
“I’ve still got two legs.”
“Okay. We’ll go back down slow.”
Marty was looking down at the kid.
“What about him?”
And he did. We could hear him behind us whimpering occasionally as we stumbled down the switchbacks to the gorge.
She put her arm through mine as we walked, whispered in my ear.
“We’ll be good for each other. You’ll see.”