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”.