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”.