Summertime Tango

I flew into Reagan National about four on a Friday afternoon, zipping over the Key Bridge at tree height, seemingly just yards from hotel balconies on the Alexandria side of the Potomac. Freed at last from buttery aromas wafting from my morbidly obese neighbor in the aisle seat, I got a SuperShuttle heading for the DoubleTree. I threw my bag in the back and sat up front. The radio was tuned to local FM and alternated promises of light traffic and fair weather with breaking news of death for the Marathon Bomber. Stalled in airport traffic, the driver fixated on his GPS and my fellow travelers gazed at their phones and absorbed music channeled through pearled earbuds. No-one spoke. We finally emerged from the concrete tunnel of Arrivals and drove through busy neighborhoods of leafy affluence one moment and urban poverty the next, pausing only for drop-offs. I was last, close to Thomas Circle, across from the Coatings Institute of America. The desk clerk was African and wore black-framed glasses. While admiring a gold chain that adorned the parting of her cream silk blouse, I missed her confirmation of a five-night stay and unwittingly earned a huge early departure penalty four days later. But on this, my first night in town, my focus was elsewhere; a penthouse suite with a view, location of the nearest market and Metro station, and opportunity for Tango Argentino.

I sorted my stuff onto hangers, stocked up on baguette, brie, cherries and Cote du Rhone at WholeFoods, and guided by Google I set off for a Freedom Milonga on Pennsylvania Avenue, just east of the White House. I strolled unobtrusively around the Plaza and observed the arrival of women in loose dresses and high heels. As the sun sank behind federal Washington and skateboarders zipped in louche challenge among the dancers, I was enveloped and tantalized by an insidious flow of classic tango from the totemic PA system. I decided on my first partner, who’d been kissed on arrival on both cheeks by men with evident tango credentials. She was as finely sculpted and expressive as an Assyrian princess. She followed me onto the reflective stone surface of the Plaza. We danced to Pugliese’s “Desde el Alma“. In the interval between one song and the next, in the low-slung light of sunset, we faced each other. Her eyes were more Persian than Levantine. I said, “My name is Maximilian, but call me Max. Do you come from Iran?” She took my hand in hers and said, “I’m Fairouz. Don’t you love this music?”

We were interrupted by a bedraggled old man sitting on the stone plinth that surrounded the plaza. He called out loudly to passing women, “Won’t you dance with me, please?” His slept-in mud-colored jacket and trousers proclaimed addiction and homelessness, a more desperate variant of attributes shared with the tango dancers who swept and turned before him. “Ma’am? Why won’t you dance with me? Hey, Miss, I’m talking to you,” he pleaded, an exasperated angry note edging into his voice. A crouched skateboarder, followed closely by another wielding a camera phone, flashed in silent sequence between us and the agitated old man. The first bars of a new tango sounded and Fairouz and I moved away as the music switched our gears from awkward confrontation to free flight. I danced only once or twice with Fairouz that evening, sidelined by skilled tangueros competing for her embrace. At some point, however, Fairouz and I were captured pivoting against the glowing golden façade of the federal Treasury by the long distance lens of someone who posted the image next day on the Capital Tangueros Facebook page. There she was, tall, elegant and intent, poised in incipient ocho. I left soon after, and sought solace in the nearly deserted DoubleTree cocktail lounge, where over a glass of beer I fell into conversation with a lone beautiful Korean gastroenterologist fine-tuning her next day’s symposium address on a laptop. As we exchanged cards over a second round, I was tempted to scribble my room number on mine, but propriety trumped opportunity, and I fell asleep alone, ensnared in colorful dreams of tango and limber East Asian rapture.

The next morning, sluggish after a breakfast buffet of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, French toast, OJ and black coffee, I missed an early shuttle to the convention center, and slipped late into my first session. I got to the mike with a last challenging question just ahead of the journal editor handling my latest submission, a slight I considered outweighed by the presence in the audience of two reviewers of my recent federal grant application. Hours later, having sat through sessions devoted to gastrointestinal microbes and fecal transplantation, I wandered into the vast acreage of deep-carpeted pharma exhibits in search of a cappuccino and biscotti. Slim pickings were the order of the day. Inscribed thumb drives and stylish pens were the only vestiges of the extravagant corporate blow-outs of years past. Back in the day, Bacchanalian evenings in civic art museums, appropriated exclusively for meeting attendees, were the norm. Every salon boasted live jazz, classical music, or rock and roll at one end, while white linen-clad tables groaned under cornucopias of fine dining at the other. This time around, navigating the corporate booths, I was seated within minutes, complete with cappuccino, while a persuasive salesman in a shiny black suit and a ponytail applied electrodes to my neck and instructed me to push buttons on a remote I found in my hand. Powerful rhythmical jolts of muscle contraction mimicked a massage but somehow failed to induce relaxation as advertised. I told ponytail I was impressed but disinclined to blow $400, and I held firm even as he said, “But for you, my friend, we can do $250.”

Later, snacking on brie, cherries and Cotes du Rhone, I watched the sun set over the Coatings Institute of America and surfed the Tango offerings that night in Washington DC. Parda Practica announced its presence from eight until whenever at Ozio’s, which Google identified as a bar and grill ten minutes stroll from the DoubleTree. Approaching Ozio’s an hour later, recapitulating my circumspect review of Freedom Plaza the night before, I saw across the street a deserted sidewalk patio and behind glass windows a low-lit restaurant and a lone bartender studying his phone. Tango music flowed from an upper floor, and I could see shadows of dancers on the curtained windows.

I recalled my first vertiginous contact with Tango, back when I pushed open the black-lacquered door of the Hotel Fakir and stepped into a parallel world with only tenuous connection to the one I knew. Then, the music and a red-head in silver stilettos had turned my head; now, crossing over to Ozio’s, I felt the same adrenaline-fueled anticipation. I knew from numerous encounters since then, in cities from Orlando to Lvov to San Diego, that the women I’d meet that night, and the music I’d hear, would reset me into default mode; at home in my brain stem, open to input and responsive to simple impulse.

Engrossed in some digital encounter, the bartender barely nodded as I made for the stairs at the back of the bar. At the top, I stepped into a facsimile of the Hotel Fakir. Before me stretched a polished floor flanked on one side with mirrors and discreet tables, and on the other with a long zinc bar. Women, their legs crossed and long, sat there sipping crimson cocktails, tended by one or two men. Couples waltzed the length of the polished floor, in perfect synchrony with Pugliese’s “Desde el Alma”. And there, suddenly in front of me, before I could properly orient myself, was Fairouz. She wore a simple yellow dress and silver stilettos, and her hennaed curls and rosewater scent engulfed me as she kissed me on both cheeks. “Welcome to Ozio’s, Max,” she said, “We’d be on the rooftop, but the builders haven’t finished there yet!”

Glitter

Morty’s Gold Mart was on the far side of the harbor, in the forlorn industrial corridor that led to the shipyards. Running on empty, I pulled into a pot-holed strip mall and, nervous about the gold coins in my coat, parked in front of a payday loan office next to Sharon’s Salon, as far from Morty’s as possible. Nobody was around as I walked over to the Gold Mart. I glanced into the salon in passing, and was startled to see a dignified black lady swiveling in a high chair and wagging her finger at me, but she was just discussing coiffure with Sharon.

A sign in the Gold Mart window promised electronic surveillance and armed response if needed. The door was locked, and a tarnished push-button dangling from a wire elicited only silence. I knocked twice; sunlit cars sped by, and no one accosted me at gunpoint. Across the street, a cinder-block auto shop and a bail-bond office framed a view of the harbor, where a distant sailboat tacked against an onshore breeze. The door opened, and Morty showed me in, double-locked the door, and slid a motel-style chain into its slot. He had an unkempt comb-over, hair sprouting from his ears, and a three-day stubble. Smiling, he splayed his hands on a scratched glass counter-top.

“We have to be careful,” he said, “I shot someone once, right here.” He pointed a forefinger at me, his thumb cocked, as if to establish his credentials in the sketchy business of gold exchange. His shop was in disarray, much like himself. Dusty catalogs were piled on shelves among jumbled bric-a-brac. Cracked whitewash peeled from the walls, and rust crept up the side of a cast-iron safe. He booted up an ancient laptop while I opened my zip-lock bag and arranged the coins by denomination.

“Ah, Franz-Joseph, 1915, very nice,” said Morty, “I don’t see these too often. Takes me back, oh yes…” He studied a 100-corona piece through a jeweler’s loupe. “Popular in East Europe before the war, say Austria, Hungary, Poland…” He looked up, and his sharp blue eye focused first on the laptop’s scrolling gold valuations, and then on me. “Insurance,” he said, “Everyone felt safer with a few coronas hidden away.”

“Did you kill him?” I asked.
“Who? Oh no, I only maimed her. The bullet tore through her ear, ricocheted off the safe and got me in the eye.” I looked once more and realized that Morty’s right eye was a glass marble, alert but ersatz. “I must have passed out,” Morty said, “because next thing I knew I was blinded by OR floods and someone was saying count back from 100. In threes, please.” His fingers slid up and down the stacked coins, while his good eye assessed their worth and the other one sized me up. I wondered whether to discuss the attempted robbery or the price of gold on the Chicago exchange. Morty’s probing glass eye nudged me onto a tangent.

“You’re right about the coins,” I said. “Years ago, hitch-hiking in Europe as a student, I stopped at my Aunt Theresa’s in Vienna. She lived in the suburbs with her husband Walter, once a Wehrmacht captain, and my grandmother, who sat in a wheelchair and drifted in and out of dementia. We toured her well-tended garden, I plucked ripe plums from the trees, and I heard the story of these coins.” Morty’s exploring fingers paused, and he inclined his head, attention caught.

“After the war,“ I went on, “Theresa and Walter had moved into an abandoned apartment in central Vienna. One day, while assembling a mahogany dining table they had lugged down from the attics, Walter removed a canvas pouch stuffed into one of the legs. He untied the ribbon and these gold coins spilled out. Years later, long after my grandmother was dead and Walter had suffered a fatal heart attack, I visited Theresa in her dotage. She said the coins would come to me when she died, in remembrance of our family’s ancestral heritage in Lvóv, Poland.”

“Lvóv!” Morty cried out, “I was born in Lvóv! Not many of us left now. We were herded into boxcars and we never returned. And now, coins that were the last hope of survival surface in my shop.” A tear glistened in his eye as he peered over my shoulder and scrutinized the incomprehensible past. The moment passed, the everyday re-asserted itself, and Morty keyed numbers into his laptop. “For these, I can meet today’s London rate,” he said, “minus 10% commission.”

I nodded. Morty spun the dial on the safe and the door swung open. He placed packets of bank notes on the counter and slit their paper bands with an ivory letter opener carved into the likeness of an alligator. His lips shaped a silent count while his fingers snapped bill after bill, teller-style. I recalled the cortège of unknown mourners that followed Aunt Theresa’s hearse to a wooded cemetery overlooking the Danube. Afterwards, I’d wandered through her run-down garden where the plum trees were heavy with fruit, and grass grew unfettered over graveled paths. Walter’s dress dagger, complete with engraved swastika and tasseled hangings, and a Luger wrapped in oilcloth, a bullet still in the breech, were momentary diversions, and I sent them on as registered freight. Later, US Customs queried the more substantive diversion of a Persian rug from Theresa’s dining room, and overlooked the gold hidden in my laundry

“Me, I’m happy here,” said Morty when he was done. He gathered in the towers of coronal glitter, and slid a pile of bills across the counter. “Nobody bothers me, and if they do, I got my Glock. Tell me, have you been to Lvóv? To the killing fields of East Europe?” If he was mocking me, he did so with a complicit smile, sliding the coins into translucent sleeves and shrink-wrapping them with a heat-gun for shipment to Chicago. Morty’s question was straightforward, but his mention of killing fields made me cautious. My answer was impartial and strictly historical.

“Yes, I was there not too long ago,” I said, “My parents had studied in Lvóv, but they’d grown up in the countryside around Domazyr. On the way there, I drove past working-class suburbs with shabby tenements and rail-yards full of empty wagons. Off the main highway, the road to Domazyr was rutted and muddy, winding through a misted landscape of birches and bare fields with sagging barns. Rounding a corner, I came upon a shrine overlooking a pasture. A rickety fence enclosed a black wooden cross with an impaled Christ, some stained glass cups with puddled candles, and a wreath of plastic flowers. The mist lifted, and beyond the pasture I saw a sunlit hill with cottages nestled in the tree line. Strips of furrowed land reached downhill from the village. Black and white cattle nosed at leisure through the rough grass. Domazyr lay peaceful under the warm afternoon sun. I parked next to a chapel with yellow-stuccoed walls and a golden dome. High in the crown of a nearby water-oak was a huge storks’ nest.”

Morty looked up from his deft packaging of coins. “Storks were everywhere back then,” he said. “They were thought to have an enchanted stone in their skull, an antidote to all poisons.” Morty laughed, but a hacking cough intervened. He braced himself against the counter and grimaced. “When I was a child, my best friend was a fair-haired boy called Mirus who lived next door. One day we climbed onto his roof to steal magic crystals from storks nesting on the chimneys. He lost his footing and fell, his fingers scratching over the slates for grip . A long instant later, I heard the terrible impact on the flagstones below.”

“Mirus was buried the day the Wehrmacht arrived,” he went on. “Selections and deportations began at once. Professors at Lvóv University were assembled in their quadrangles, formed into lines, and shot. Old people and women and children were sent to Belzec and gassed. The countryside became littered with the mass graves of their sons and husbands. In frantic discussions with Mirus’s parents at our kitchen table, some papers were burned and others were falsified. My father told me I was now Mirus, and that I would live next door with his parents. Three days later, I watched my mother and father join a grim procession heading for the Kleparóv railway station.” Morty slid the last cylinder of glitter into a padded envelope. “I never saw them again.”

To all intents, my business with Morty was over, and I regretted that I’d rambled on about Domazyr. I gazed in silence at the money arrayed before me and contemplated the unspeakable convergence in our stories. Much too late, a doomed family’s last hope was being traded, not for life, but for equity in irrelevant marsh-front property. Morty spread his hands in a gesture of acquiescence and acknowledgement of survival against all odds. His glass eye held me fast, and the other one swept the sidelines, alert for danger. A shadow darkened the Gold Mart window, but it was only the lady with her near-perfect Sharon coiffure.

Blue, To Go

With just two minutes to go, the auditorium was empty. A faint thrum of traffic and the pitter-patter of a rain-shower filtered into the silent room. I called up my slides, dimmed the lights for optimal viewing of fluorescent organisms, and made sure Tegrity was on. I checked my watch, and scanned the vacant rows of seats for signs of life. On the hour, my phone pinged as a text came in.
“ok your good to go dont forget to upload at the end mindy”
“But there’s no-one here, Mindy,” I replied.
“don’t worry their watching in the libray or at home go for it”
The course director had spoken. For a moment or two, I weighed the coercive logic of distance learning against a Socratic ideal of engagement. No contest. I gathered my notes, and glancing up one last time, about to leave, I saw a solitary figure, a redhead in shimmering blue leggings, sliding into a back-row seat. She shook out her umbrella, smiled politely, and opened a laptop. I switched on the wireless mike clipped to my lapel.
“Good morning,” I said, and aimed the ruby laser at the screen, carefully underlining my lecture topic. “This has come up in every National Board for the last five years. You’ll ace that section with this lecture. I’ll begin with three essential concepts.” I slid my cursor to the Tegrity logo and killed it. I discussed the first concept, and was well into the second when my phone pinged again.
“tegrity down cant see anything”
“Sorry Mindy, I’m busy right now,” I replied.
Pointer in hand, I left the podium and sat down near the back. My student smiled quizzically, curious about what next. I cut off the mike, covered the third concept and went on with my lecture. Some minutes passed, the double doors behind us swung open, and a cold damp draft came in from the street. Mindy appeared in the aisle beside me, bristling.
She watched one or two slides go by, and said, “Let’s switch on Tegrity.”
“I prefer not to,“ I said. Mindy grappled silently with this notion, weighing the rights of one hundred and fifty paid-up students against my mandate as a professor. Before two seconds had passed, she strode down the aisle towards the podium and my laptop. My red-headed postulant took advantage of the interruption and leaned towards me.
“”What do you mean?” she whispered. “Helicobacter pylori shuts down acid secretion and causes ulcers? I thought dogma said “No acid, no ulcer!””
On the big screen, Mindy brought Tegrity to life, and one hundred and odd remote students saw pearls iridescing briefly on their obsidian displays.
“Good question,” I said, “let’s get some coffee and dig deeper.” I cast aside my wireless trappings, and we stepped out. The rain-shower had moved on, the sky was blue, and Socrates rested easy.

What a Little Moonlight Can Do

Reality is manifest in many ways, not least through dreams. Billie and I had danced a few times during the practica, but I’d been distracted. I had promised my editor a new story by midnight and nothing came to mind. When I gathered my things at the end and left, I saw Billie poised at the top of the stairs admiring the moon as it rose over the harbor into a warm night sky. She had thrown a faux fur stole across her bare shoulders and her satin dress shimmered in the moonlight. I imagined inviting her to walk with me to the waterfront. Once past the Tango Center, the sidewalk outside the Psychiatric Clinic tilted a little towards the street and we leaned into each other to steady ourselves, my hand at her elbow as now and again her thigh grazed mine. We took a shortcut through a parking-lot, deserted save for an idling police cruiser, a watchful figure at the wheel just visible in the glow of the instruments.

As we strolled along a boardwalk bordering the marsh, Billie described a tango pilgrimage she’d made recently. She said she had danced every night into the small hours, never overlooked in the discreet invitations that followed each set. We came to a ramp that led down to a floating dock. Our steps set in motion receding arcs of moonlit wavelets that lapped against cattails at the edge of the marsh.
“The men were predatory,“ she said, “Dancing, I could feel their lust down there.”
I was lost for words. I brought music to life on my cellphone and touched her waist, but she looked away towards the harbor and said, “Let’s walk.” I wanted to tell her that tango was just another way of walking, but she knew that better than I did.

We returned to the boardwalk, the sighs of a tango violin animating the sway of her hips. Side-by-side we strolled through a park that followed the contours of the marsh. My tentative hand found hers, and a moment later slipped around her waist. We paused in the moonlit shade of a water-oak and settled into a bench overlooking the silvered expanse of the harbor. Somehow in the course of our murmured conversation, a new intimacy arose between us. We adjusted easily enough, and I must have dozed off for a while in her lap, because I suddenly awoke, chilled in the cool night air. Sitting up, momentarily disoriented, I saw that clouds had obscured the moon, and I realized that Billie was no longer there. My first thought was that I’d imagined everything, but the faux fur stole draped over me testified to reality. I held the damp lining to my face, inhaled redolent wisps of Billie, and peered into the dark recesses of the park, expecting any minute to see her emerge. I called her name, softly, but heard only the faint moan of a ship far out to sea.

I walked back the way we’d come. The police car was still in the parking lot, but now it blocked the driveway leading back to the Tango Center. Its flashing blue lights stabbed at my eyes as I drew closer. I weighed in the balance whether to report Billie’s absence, or just keep going. Misguided caution overruled propriety, and I sloped off on a tangent, heading for where a wire fence ran into the marsh. I was negotiating the tricky transition from the parking lot to someone’s back yard when a spike of chain-link snagged me and my feet began to sink in pluff-mud. Shaking off my shoes, I may have cursed inadvertently and caused a general commotion because next thing I knew an officer stood there shining a steel flashlight in my face.

“Evening, sir,” she said, “May I see your ID?”
“Of course,” I said, adopting the demeanor of one engaged in perfectly normal activity. “Is there a problem?”
“There were cries down by the waterfront. I noticed you came through here earlier. Where’s your friend?”
“My friend? Billie? We walked down to the marsh a while ago. I woke up and she was gone.”
“Is that her jacket?”
“Yes it is. What kind of cries?”
“I’m not at liberty to say. Mostly we’re alerted by anything out of the ordinary.”

I pictured the dubious high relief image I presented, and wondered whether I qualified. Our conversation was interrupted by crackles emanating from bulky equipment fixed to her belt. She groped for a button and gazed at the moon while reciting a set of numbers that bore the stamp of conviction. She turned to me.
“Sir? I need you to come down to the station. You’ll have to make a statement.”
I was about to say that my statements were usually published in biomedical journals or less frequently as literary fiction, but I held my tongue. My shoes were lost in the marsh, God only knew what had happened to Billie, and I seemed to be under arrest. “Of course. Glad to help in any way.”

She opened the back door of her cruiser, and I slid inside, expecting to feel her hand on my head anointing me a common perp. The car smelled of cigarettes and old vomit, the cloth seat was sticky, and the Plexiglas partition in front of me was clouded with tiny scratches. She flipped some switches, and we sped out of the parking lot, lights flashing and siren wailing. Gazing out the window, stupefied by the turn events had taken, I caught sight of Billie walking briskly past the Psychiatric Clinic, leaning carefully away from the uneven slant towards the street, her arms crossed against the night chill.

“That’s her,” I cried, “that’s Billie! Drop me off right here, thanks.” I knocked insistently on the scarred partition, but the officer was fixated on a laptop that glowed and blinked beside her. She drove fast with only an occasional glance at the road, seemingly immune to the commotion behind her. I heard a loud pop and then a brief hiss.
“Sir? I need you to sit still and quit banging on the partition. We’ll be at the station in just a minute.”
“Ma’am, can’t you hear me? That’s Billie back there, we’re done here, let me out. I’ve got a deadline to meet.”
She caught my eye in her rear-view and blew through a red light.
“Sir? If you don’t stop banging, I’ll need to call in back-up.”

I twisted around and through the rear window I saw Billie, distant now, poised in front of the Tango Center where the lights were out and the doors were locked. She faced the waterfront, caught for a moment in a pool of moonlight. I lost her as we swerved through another intersection. I fell back in the seat and smoothed the sable folds of Billie’s stole in my lap. My watch ticked off the minutes to midnight. I marveled how insidiously tangos earlier that night had seguéd from metaphor into make-believe. We slowed and turned into the floodlit precinct. The siren died down and I steeled myself for the task ahead. A new story; a dream manifest as reality.

Viral Tango

A viral pandemic is as good an excuse as any to explore the wild outdoors. Complying with federal guidelines, Max had spent weeks in lock-down, shunning all human contact, dutifully noting depletion of staples from his larder and fridge. His stash of disinfectant wipes, bleach and toilet paper was a mockery of its former self. He replenished essential supplies once a week, armed with silicone gloves and wipes, in carefully planned excursions to a nearby Food Lion in his failing SUV which had inconveniently developed transmission issues. When gun sales took off, he realized that human contact was more essential than toilet paper. At the time, he was winning against shut-ins like himself seeking refuge in online chess. But mental acuity in silico lacks the spontaneity of real life encounters. And so, one evening, having foiled another assault on his chess rating, he texted Dolores and ventured out to the Hotel Fakir, where as far as he knew the tango salon was still catering to those for whom the viral pandemic was an excuse to indulge in end-time excess.

No-one lingered in the cobbled alley leading to the black-laquered door of the Hotel Fakir and its transom etching of an admonitory cobra. Inside, Ignatio Quiroga presided over the salon, immaculate as always in a starched white shirt and black tie. He was wiping the bar’s zinc surface and polishing glasses. A discreet military decoration was  pinned to the lapel of his dinner jacket. His gladioli and clematis arrangement at the end of the bar was only a little wilted. A Di Sarli tango wafted aimlessly across the deserted parquet dance floor and the still reflections in the mirrored far wall of the salon. He looked up in surprise as Max settled onto a bar-stool.

“Good to see you, Max,” he said, “Malbec?”  He coughed into his elbow and wiped beads of sweat from his brow. His face as he turned to Max was waxen and skeletal. Stunned, Max thought about octogenarian susceptibility to viruses, and the probability that viral death trumped the existential respite afforded by Tango.

“A Corona, Ignatio, thank you,” he said. “By the way, have you thought about getting tested? I can get you tested. The Hotel Fakir needs you now more than ever.“

Ignatio fixed his rheumy eyes on Max. “A viral pandemic tests us, Max, not the other way around.” He suppressed a cough, and then another,  “Look around you. Where is everyone? Sheltering at home? Viruses don’t discriminate between those in love, those who aren’t, and those in the grip of Tango. We’ll all be infected eventually. We must enjoy life while we can.”

Max retrieved a disinfectant wipe from his pocket and discreetly wiped his beer glass. “You may be right, Ignatio. We can die now, or we can die later. I prefer later.” He looked around the empty tango salon and thought back to the days before DJs when a bandoneon, violin, and piano trio ruled the Hotel Fakir. The salon would be heady with ladies’ perfumes, tropical flowers, fine wine, and cigarillos. This potent mix would be fueled by dramas driven by desire, jealousy, unrequited love, and Tango.

For now, end-time excess was nowhere to be seen. Ignatio had withdrawn to the far end of the bar, tending his signature flowers. Max finished his Corona and was thinking about another when he felt cool fresh air wafting across the dance floor. He turned and saw Dolores pause at the door, smooth her silk satin dress and touch her hair. She came over to the bar, her heels tapping on the parquet, and signaled to Ignatio for her usual. The Di Sarli tango segued into Miguel Calo’s “El Vals Sonador”. Ignatio coughed again and again into his elbow. Max took her hand, virus be damned, and said, “Let’s dance.” Dolores set her purse on the bar next to her Manhattan, and stepped, together with Max, into the clear space that separates life from death.

About halfway through their first tanda, Dolores’s close embrace evoked Max’s first memory, of being swaddled in warm blankets in his pram, and gazing in rapt wonderment at apple blossoms and blue skies. Over by the bar, Ignatio had set a glass of Scotch before a new arrival, one of the city’s finest, who had carefully lowered his spacious backside onto a barstool and adjusted his belt-full of law enforcement paraphernalia that included a squawking walkie-talkie, a couple of ziplock cuffs, and a holstered black handgun. Ignatio was explaining, between coughs, that all relevant COVID-19 guidelines were in effect, and that he’d be happy to replenish the officer’s glass as needed.

“What about them?” the officer asked, gesturing at Dolores and Max as he swirled and downed his Scotch. His face was flushed, and he reached for a napkin decorated with the Hotel Fakir logo and wiped his brow. “I don’t see face-masks. I don’t see gloves. The caskets for these two are on their way.”

Ignatio was diplomatic, as always. “Officer, your concerns are well-founded. And I assure you, as we speak, that I’m fixing any and all irregularities going forward.” He paused as Max and Dolores passed by, animating the otherwise still mirrors of the tango salon. “They’re essential personnel, first responders at the Medical University. They have an hour or two off, then they’re back in the ER.” He set a bottle with a complex inviting label on the bar between them. “By the way, are you familiar with Sheildaig, an outstanding Finest Old single malt Scotch whisky from Islay?” The officer sighed, nodded, nudged his empty glass towards Ignatio, and said, “You read me like a book, Ignatio. I’ve always liked your tango salon. The way that everyone behaves. Not what you’d expect when people who’ve never met get close and intimate, know what I mean?”

Ignatio poured a measure of Sheldaig into the officer’s glass. “Shakespeare once said, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’”. He passed his wipe across the zinc surface of the bar. “We deal here in dreams, Officer, dreams locked in our unconscious. Tango merely picks the lock.”

At that moment, while he was still contemplatively swirling his Sheldaig, the officer’s radio erupted in a series of unintelligible squawks that stiffened his spine and caused him to swallow his Sheldaig pronto. “Gotta go,” he said, hitching his belt, “Looks like we got us a riot on Meeting Street.” He hiccupped, belched once or twice, and paused momentarily as Max and Dolores swept unconcernedly past him, eyes closed, rapt in the Tango moment spun by Di Sarli’s violin and bandoneon. He swung open the black-laquered door of the Hotel Fakir and fumbled with his belt-full of riot-control gear as distant concussions and the percussive beats of a helicopter and its sweeping searchlight invaded the Hotel Fakir. Ignatio listened attentively to the growing ruckus beyond the cobbled alley, and then resumed his reflective polishing of wine glasses, pausing now and again to study the small collection of photographs next to his tropical flowers.

Dolores walked over and caught the faraway look in his eye. “Tell me a story, Ignatio”, she said, “I’m not dancing.” He adjusted a sepia photograph showing a young man and a woman in a silk dress and high heels in a close tango embrace.

“Long ago I led a garrison defending a remote archipelago against foreign aggression,” he said, absent-mindedly touching the gold military pin on his lapel. “My adjutant was political, the bureaucracy’s eye on the battlefield.” He glanced at the photograph. “His wife Graciela and I were in love. I see her in you, Dolores.” Ignatio took her hand in his. She smiled, but his tired lined face was impassive. “Things didn’t end well. I escaped a firing squad with the help of a brother officer named Ferreyra. He was shot instead.”

Dolores was used to Ignatio’s darker moods, and turned away to look for Max, unprepared for what came next. With an explosive crash the etched glass transom over the front door splintered into a thousand shards. Something smoking and ominous lay spinning out on the dance floor. She glimpsed a bottle, a rag, a tiny lick of flame. With an almighty silent detonation, the salon was suddenly an incandescent lake of fire, and for one suspended second, everything stopped. And then panic set in as she and Max fled out to the patio, slapping at claws of fire that raked them as they ran. They cowered by the wrought iron railings beneath the fig trees. The Hotel Fakir, triumphantly ablaze in its final moments, defiant in the delayed drenching of fire hoses, slowly collapsed in monumental showers of sparks. Just then, Dolores realized that Ignatio was no longer with them. A spectral figure was silhouetted against the fiery tableau, heading back into the flames.

The fire that consumed the Hotel Fakir made the front page of the Charleston Evening Post. For those whose days were lived in fear, the blaze confirmed that citizen vigilantes, preferably armed in accordance with the Second Amendment, should defend the city against infiltration from all points north of Calhoun Street. Tango was of course the pre-eminent raison d’etre of the Hotel Fakir, and Tango’s shameless connection between men and women who would otherwise be strangers no doubt fueled, together with the Molotov cocktail, the enthusiasm with which the Post reported the spectacular demise of the Hotel Fakir.

The die-hard Hotel Fakir regulars mourned above all the enigmatic Ignatio Quiroga, who could easily have escaped the catastrophe, but instead sought to save some prints, the Aquitania among them, and a handful of photographs of tango intimates, family, Hotel Fakir habitués, and written testimonials that adorned the bar next to his extravagant daily displays of tropical flowers. Ignatio Quiroga died aged 90, a soldier and tanguero whose checkered career included command of the 7th Infantry in the Falkland Islands campaign. As a boy in Buenos Aires, accompanying his mother to milongas where she worked as a dancer, he had learned the feminine role in Tango because young men needed compliant followers to hone their skills as tangueros. This knowledge animated the masterful tangos that he performed occasionally in the Hotel Fakir, but more often found expression in laconic and perceptive remarks as he concocted his heady drinks behind the bar.

The next morning, firemen probing the smouldering ruin of the Hotel Fakir found the remains of Ignatio Quiroga behind the blistered black-lacquered door, surrounded by fused globules of shattered etched glass from the transom. A right hand, which had somehow escaped incineration, grasped a framed sepia photograph of Graciela, her eyes closed, her hands cradling Ignatio in an intimate tango embrace. In the background, a blurred but recognizable Osvaldo Pugliese was leading his orchestra in a performance of what could only have been “Manos Adoradas”.