Friday evenings, heading home from his lab, Max often turned into the shaded cul-de-sac off Meeting Street to shrug off his professional life for an hour or two at the Hotel Fakir. There he danced occasionally with beautiful women lost in Tango dreams and worried about putting words to paper. Like many academics, even those grappling with biological science, Max was an aspiring novelist immobilized by writer’s block. Like all scribblers, Max thought that a rich imagination leavened with real-life experience would attract legions of readers if only he could summon simple declarative sentences. Once, nursing a glass of Noemia Malbec, Max told Ignatio that Tango got in the way, muddling his thinking.
“If only I could touch-type”, he said, “or maybe just tape my thoughts…”
Ignatio remembered the tiny Sony recorder he’d used that day at a tedious budget meeting with his accountant. He placed the Sony on the zinc surface of the bar and pressed Record.
“What’s on your mind, Max?”
With Anibal Triolo’s orchestra playing in the background, the recorder captured Max’s words.
“The moon was huge and blood-red as I drove home from tango, doing about 60 on the long deserted down-slope of the Stono River bridge onto Johns Island. I was thinking about tango and its hypnotic allure when I noticed flashing blue lights far behind me. I touched the brakes, better to be safe than sorry; whoever was being pulled over was shocked right now, and there but for the grace of God went I. Astor Piazzolla’s rhythmic paean to lost love was on the radio, and I turned it up. Next thing I knew, a police car was on my tail, his lights in my face, his siren whooping urgently. I pulled over, shocked, trying not to swerve too zealously, recalling a glass of wine I’d had earlier. I rolled down the windows and breathed deeply to dissipate any lingering aromas. The engine ticked, mosquitoes buzzed, and a barred owl called from the woods.”
“The cruiser’s door swung open, and an officer loomed in my rear-view, a foot-long flashlight in her hand. She glanced at me and swiveled her torch across the back seat. I thought of the lovely doe-eyed attendant on my flight into Beirut.
“Good evening, Officer.” She returned my smile, briefly.
“Do you know you were doing 60 in a 45?”
“Surely not. I’m sorry. I wanted to get home before midnight.”
“My name’s not Shirley.” She regarded me levelly. “May I see your license and registration?”
I rummaged around the glove-box.
“I’m coming home from an Argentine Tango class at the University, every Tuesday night, very beguiling. Have you ever thought about Tango, Ma’am?”
She may have rolled her eyes, but the note of asperity in her voice was unmistakable.
“Not that I remember. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“I closed the windows and sat tight, listening to “Regreso al Amor” and reflecting on the injustice of a ticket for a little speed on an empty highway in the middle of nowhere. I must have dozed off momentarily, for her tap on the window startled me, pasting a guilty look onto my face. She gave me a pale blue warning slip, told me to slow down, and smiled, briefly. I thanked her and thought how a civil society is essentially just, and how as always luck was on my side.”
“On the last moonlit stretch of River Road, almost home, doing about 40, I suddenly registered a full-grown deer trotting across the road directly in front of me. I stood on the brakes. The impact was solid and irrevocable and hurled the animal into a ballistic trajectory that spanned the divide between life and death. I stopped. The blameless deer lay broken in the glare of the high beams, its head still reaching for the safety of the dark woods where the barred owl called. I flipped on the emergency lights, and as in a dream, I stepped out of the car and approached the vivid still-life splayed on the asphalt. Piazzolla’s insistent cello and double bass fugue became a dirge as I dragged the creature by its warm velvet feet onto the grass verge. The celebration of life evoked by Tango seemed impotent and irrelevant in the face of instant death. And yet the music’s tendrils weaved their way into my stunned heart, freighting the moment with gravity and remorse, but also kindling a redemptive spark of solace…”
“Of course I wasn’t quite the same after that. Nor was my car. A headlight was dislodged by the impact but still worked, dangling freely from a wire or two. Months later, as an orange-vested volunteer on a roadway clean-up crew, I found among discarded beer-cans and rotted fast-food trash a deer skull half-buried in the muddy ditch. I probed some more with my pick-up stick, and uncovered a shattered ribcage and two or three long bones. I paused and gazed into the sun-stippled woods. A red-tailed hawk cried out over the marsh. Occasional cars and trucks sped past. None of them was playing Piazzolla’s “Regreso Al Amor”, but I wouldn’t have been surprised. Since that moonlit night, Tango had reasserted its grip on me. But now I was wary, having watched and listened to tangled tango tales that didn’t always end well. I was slowly learning to distill the message of Tango from its eager, enticing and indispensable messengers.”
“A line of helmeted ropey-calved thirty-somethings in skin-tight spandex zipped by on weightless bikes.
“Good job, sir, thank you,” one of them called out in passing, and was gone. A little later, a skinny man wearing a doo-rag pedaled past slowly on a rickety bicycle.
“Yo, boss, what you doin’ time for?” he asked.
“Well, I bounced a check or two.” I mopped my brow. “The ol’ lady got a restraining order, I messed up probation, an’ here I am, know what I’m saying?”
“I hear you, boss; take care now,” he chuckled and pedaled off, perhaps unsettled by the thought it could be him in the ditch and not me.”
“I fired up my iPod and listened to Di Sarli’s “El Pollito” as I tramped along the grassy verge. I mused over the delirious music, and the tantalizing promise of the eager messengers. Dolores, a forthright young woman who danced with intuitively calibrated abandon as if we’d been together for years. Julia, reserved and critical, whose momentary lapses of self-control revealed beautiful synchronies in our intertwined steps. And Lexi, acutely responsive to the least flamboyant lead, as long as it arose from an intentional and protective embrace. At best, transcendence of sorts; at worst, messy complications and an existential reboot with an unknowable future.”
“A metallic glint caught my eye. Here was a hefty Bowie knife, its seven-inch blade a little rusty but still sharp. And there, nearby, for balance, lay a mildewed leather wallet with a sodden Ruby Tuesday $10 off coupon, a Dollar Tree receipt for pork rinds and chewing tobacco, and a blurred Polaroid of a teenage girl. No driver’s license. I poked around for telltale signs of a rotted corpse, but of course there was none. The distant shriek of the red-tailed hawk signaled just another day on Johns Island.”
Max fell silent, and Troilo’s “Milonga Triste” drifted from the little Sony. In the background hiss, Ignatio heard Dolores whisper in Max’s ear.
“Why so sad, Max? Thinking only of yourself again? Come dance with me.”