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Authors: John Updike

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BOOK: Bech
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In Brasov the American writer and his escort passed the time in harmless sightseeing. The local museum contained peasant costumes. The local castle contained armor. The Lutheran cathedral was surprising; Gothic lines and scale had been wedded to clear glass and an austerity of decoration, noble and mournful, that left one, Bech felt, much too alone with God. He felt the Reformation here as a desolating wind, four hundred years ago. From the hotel roof, the view looked sepia, and there was an empty swimming pool, and wet snow on the lacy metal chairs. Petrescu shivered and went down to
his room. Bech changed neckties and went down to the bar. Champagne music bubbled from the walls. The bartender understood what a Martini was, though he used equal parts of gin and vermouth. The clientele was young, and many spoke Hungarian, for Transylvania had been taken from Hungary after the war. One plausible youth, working with Bech’s reluctant French, elicited from him that he was
un écrivain
, and asked for his autograph. But this turned out to be the prelude to a proposed exchange of pens, in which Bech lost a sentimentally cherished Esterbrook and gained a nameless ballpoint that wrote red. Bech wrote three and a half postcards (to his mistress, his mother, his publisher, and a half to his editor at
) before the red pen went dry. Petrescu, who neither drank nor smoked, finally appeared. Bech said, “My hero, where have you been? I’ve had four Martinis and been swindled in your absence.”

Petrescu was embarrassed. “I’ve been shaving.”


“Yes, it is humiliating. I must spend each day one hour shaving, and even yet it does not look as if I have shaved, my beard is so obdurate.”

“Are you putting blades in the razor?”

“Oh, yes, I buy the best and use two upon each occasion.”

“This is the saddest story I’ve ever heard. Let me send you some decent blades when I get home.”

“Please, do not. There are no blades better than the blades I use. It is merely that my beard is phenomenal.”

“When you die,” Bech said, “you can leave it to Rumanian science.”

“You are ironical.”

In the restaurant, there was dancing—the Tveest, the Hully Gullee, and chain formations that involved a lot of droll hopping.
American dances had become here innocently birdlike. Now and then a young man, slender and with hair combed into a parrot’s peak, would leap into the air and seem to hover, emitting a shrill palatal cry. The men in Transylvania appeared lighter and more fanciful than the women, who moved, in their bell-skirted cocktail dresses, with a wooden stateliness perhaps inherited from their peasant grandmothers. Each girl who passed near their table was described by Petrescu, not humorously at first, as a “typical Rumanian beauty.”

“And this one, with the orange lips and eyelashes?”

“A typical Rumanian beauty. The cheekbones are very classical.”

“And the blonde behind her? The small plump one?”

“Also typical.”

“But they are so different. Which is more typical?”

“They are equally. We are a perfect democracy.” Between spates of dancing, a young chanteuse, more talented than the one in the Bucharest hotel, took the floor. She had learned, probably from free-world films, that terrible mannerism of strenuousness whereby every note, no matter how accessibly placed and how flatly attacked, is given a facial aura of immense accomplishment. Her smile, at the close of each number, combined a conspiratorial twinkle, a sublime humility, and an element of dazed self-congratulation. Yet, beneath the artifice, the girl had life. Bech was charmed by a number, in Italian, that involved much animated pouting and finger-scolding and placing of the fists on the hips. Petrescu explained that the song was the plaint of a young wife whose husband was always attending soccer matches and never stayed home with her. Bech asked, “Is she also a typical Rumanian beauty?”

“I think,” Petrescu said, with a purr Bech had not heard before, “she is a typical little Jewess.”

The drive, late the next afternoon, back to Bucharest was worse than the one out, for it took place partly in the dark. The chauffeur met the challenge with increased speed and redoubled honking. In a rare intermittence of danger, a straight road near Ploesti where only the oil rigs relieved the flatness, Bech asked, “Seriously, do you not feel the insanity in this man?” Five minutes before, the driver had turned to the back seat and, showing even gray teeth in a tight tic of a smile, had remarked about a dog lying dead beside the road. Bech suspected that most of the remark had not been translated.

Petrescu said, crossing his legs in the effete and weary way that had begun to exasperate Bech, “No, he is a good man, an extremely kind man, who takes his work too seriously. In that he is like the beautiful Jewess whom you so much admired.”

“In my country,” Bech said, “ ‘Jewess’ is a kind of fighting word.”

“Here,” Petrescu said, “it is merely descriptive. Let us talk about Herman Melville. Is it possible to you that
is a yet greater work than
The White Whale

“No, I think it is yet not so great, possibly.”

“You are ironical about my English. Please excuse it. Being prone to motion sickness has discollected my thoughts.”

“Our driver would discollect anybody’s thoughts. Is it possible that he is the late Adolf Hitler, kept alive by Count Dracula?”

“I think not. Our people’s uprising in 1944 fortunately exterminated the Fascists.”

“That is fortunate. Have you ever read, speaking of Melville,

Melville, it happened, was Bech’s favorite American author, in whom he felt united the strengths that were later to go the separate ways of Dreiser and James. Throughout dinner, back at the hotel, he lectured Petrescu about him. “No one,” Bech said—he had ordered a full bottle of white Rumanian wine, and his tongue felt agile as a butterfly—“more courageously faced our native terror. He went for it right between its wide-set little pig eyes, and it shattered his genius like a lance.” He poured himself more wine. The hotel chanteuse, who Bech now noticed had buck teeth as well as gawky legs, stalked to their table, untangled her feet from the microphone wire, and favored them with a French version of “Some Enchanted Evening.”

“You do not consider,” Petrescu said, “that Hawthorne also went between the eyes? And the laconic Ambrose Bierce?”

Quelque soir enchanté
,” the woman sang, her eyes and teeth and earrings glittering like the facets of a chandelier.

“Hawthorne blinked,” Bech pronounced, “and Bierce squinted.”

Vous verrez l’étranger …

“I worry about you, Petrescu,” Bech continued. “Don’t you ever have to go home? Isn’t there a Frau Petrescu, Madame, or whatever, a typical Rumanian, never mind.” Abruptly he felt steeply lonely.

In bed, when his room had stopped the gentle swaying motion with which it had greeted his entrance, he remembered the driver, and the man’s neatly combed death-gray face seemed the face of everything foul, stale, stupid, and uncontrollable in the world. He had seen that tight tic of a smile before. Where? He remembered. West 86th Street, coming back from Riverside Park, Mickey Schwartz, a child with whom he always argued, and was always right, and always lost.
Their ugliest quarrel had concerned comic strips, whether or not the artist—Segar, say, who drew Popeye, or Harold Gray of Little Orphan Annie—whether or not the artist, in duplicating the faces from panel to panel, day after day, traced them. Bech had maintained, obviously, not. Mickey had insisted that some mechanical process had to be used. Bech tried to explain that it was not such a difficult feat, that just as a person’s handwriting is always the same—Mickey, his face clouding, said it wasn’t possible. Bech explained, what he saw so clearly, that everything was possible for human beings with a little training and talent, that the ease and variation of each panel proved his point. Just learn to look, you dummy. Mickey’s face had become totally closed, with a pig-eyed density quite inhuman, as it steadily shook “No, no, no,” and Bech, becoming frightened and furious, tried to behead the other boy with his fists, and the boy in turn pinned him and pressed his face into the bitter grit of pebbles and glass that coated the cement passageway between two apartment buildings. These unswept jagged bits, a kind of city topsoil, had enlarged under his eyes, and this experience, the magnification amidst pain of those negligible mineral flecks, had formed, perhaps, a vision. At any rate, it seemed to Bech, as he skidded into sleep, that his artistic gifts had been squandered in the attempt to recapture that moment of stinging precision.

The next day was his last full day in Rumania. Petrescu took him to an art museum where, amid many ethnic posters posing as paintings, a few sketches and sculpted heads by the young Brancusi smelled like saints’ bones. The two men went on to the twenty years’ industrial exhibit and admired rows of brightly painted machinery—gaudy counters in some large
international game. They visited shops, and everywhere Bech felt a desiccated pinkish elegance groping, out of eclipse, through the murky hardware of Sovietism, toward a rebirth of style. Yet there had been a tough and heroic naïveté in Russia that he missed here, where something shrugging and effete seemed to leave room for a vein of energetic evil. In the evening, they went to
Patima de Sub Ulmi

Their driver, bringing them to the very door of the theatre, pressed his car forward through bodies, up an arc of driveway crowded with pedestrians. The people caught in the headlights were astonished; Bech slammed his foot on a phantom brake and Petrescu grunted and strained backward in his seat. The driver continually tapped his horn—a demented, persistent muttering—and slowly the crowd gave way around the car. Bech and Petrescu stepped, at the door, into the humid atmosphere of a riot. As the chauffeur, his childish small-nosed profile intent, pressed his car back through the crowd to the street, fists thumped on the fenders.

Safe in the theatre lobby, Petrescu took off his sunglasses to wipe his face. His eyes were a tender bulging blue, with jaundiced whites; a scholar’s tremor pulsed in his left lower lid. “You know,” he confided to Bech, “that man our driver. Not all is well with him.”

“That’s what I keep telling you,” Bech said.

O’Neill’s starveling New England farmers were played as Russian muzhiks; they wore broad-belted coats and high black boots and kept walloping each other on the back. Abbie Cabot had become a typical Rumanian beauty, ten years past her prime, with a beauty spot on one cheek and artful bare arms as supple as a swan’s neck. Since their seats were in the center of the second row, Bech had a good if infrequent view down the front of her dress, and thus, ignorant of when the
plot would turn her his way, he contentedly manufactured suspense for himself. But Petrescu, his loyalty to American letters affronted beyond endurance, insisted that they leave after the first act. “Wrong, wrong,” he complained. “Even the pitchforks were wrong.”

“I’ll have the State Department send them an authentic American pitchfork,” Bech promised.

“And the girl—the girl is not like that, not a coquette. She is a religious innocent, under economic stress.”

“Well, scratch an innocent, find a coquette. Scratch a coquette, you find economic stress.”

“It is your good nature to joke, but I am ashamed you saw such a travesty. Now our driver is not here. We are undone.”

The street outside the theatre, so recently jammed, was empty and dark. A solitary couple walked slowly toward them. With surrealistic suddenness, Petrescu fell into the arms of the man, walloping his back, and then kissed the calmly proffered hand of the woman. The couple was introduced to Bech as “a most brilliant young writer and his notably ravishing wife.” The man, stolid and forbidding, wore rimless glasses and a bulky checked topcoat. The woman was scrawny; her face, potentially handsome, had been worn to its bones by the nervous activity of her intelligence. She had a cold and a command, quick but limited, of English. “Are you having a liking for this?” she asked.

Bech understood her gesture to include all Rumania. “Very much,” he answered. “After Russia, it seems very civilized.”

“And who isn’t?” she snapped. “What are you liking most?”

Petrescu roguishly interposed, “He has a passion for nightclub singers.”

The wife translated this for her husband; he took his hands from his overcoat pockets and clapped them. He was wearing
leather gloves, so the noise was loud on the deserted street. He spoke, and Petrescu translated: “He says we should therefore, as hosts, escort you to the most celebrated night club in Bucharest, where you will see many singers, each more glorious than the preceding.”

“But,” Bech said, “weren’t they going somewhere? Shouldn’t they go home?” It worried him that Communists never seemed to go home.

“For why?” the wife cried.

“You have a cold,” Bech told her. Her eyes didn’t comprehend. He touched his own nose, so much larger than hers. “
Un rhume

“Poh!” she said. “Itself takes care of tomorrow.”

The writer owned a car, and he drove them, with the gentleness of a pedal boat, through a maze of alleys overhung by cornices suggestive of cake frosting, of waves breaking, of seashells, lion paws, unicorn horns, and cumulus clouds. They parked across the street from a blue sign, and went into a green doorway, and down a yellow set of stairs. Music approached them from one direction and a coat-check girl in net tights from the other. It was to Bech as if he were dreaming of an American night club, giving it the strange spaciousness of dreams. The main room had been conjured out of several basements—a cave hollowed from the underside of jeweler’s shops and vegetable marts. Tables were set in shadowy tiers arranged around a central square floor. Here a man with a red wig and mascaraed eyes was talking into a microphone, mincingly. Then he sang, in the voice of a choirboy castrated too late. A waiter materialized. Bech ordered Scotch, the other writer ordered vodka. The wife asked for cognac and Petrescu for mineral water. Three girls dressed as rather naked bicyclists appeared with a dwarf on a unicycle and did
some unsmiling gyrations to music while he pedalled among them, tugging bows and displacing straps. “Typical Polish beauties,” Petrescu explained in Bech’s ear. He and the writer’s wife were seated on the tier behind Bech. Two women, one a girl in her teens and the other a heavy old blonde, perhaps her mother, both dressed identically in sequined silver, did a hypnotic, languorous act with tinted pigeons, throwing them up in the air, watching them wheel through the shadows of the night club, and holding out their wrists for their return. They juggled with the pigeons, passed them between their legs, and for a climax the elderly blonde fed an aquamarine pigeon with seeds held in her mouth and fetched, one by one, onto her lips. “Czechs,” Petrescu explained. The master of ceremonies reappeared in a blue wig and a toreador’s jacket, and did a comic act with the dwarf, who had been fitted with papier-mâché horns. An East German girl, flaxen-haired and apple-cheeked, with the smooth columnar legs of the very young, came to the microphone dressed in a minimal parody of a cowgirl outfit and sang, in English, “Dip in the Hot of Texas” and “Allo Cindy Lou, Gootbye Hot.” She pulled guns from her hips and received much pro-American applause, but Bech was on his third Scotch and needed his hands to hold cigarettes. The Rumanian writer sat at the table beside him, a carafe of vodka at his elbow, staring stolidly at the floor show. He looked like the young Theodore Roosevelt, or perhaps McGeorge Bundy. His wife leaned forward and said in Bech’s ear, “Is just like home, hey? Texas is ringing bells?” He decided she was being sarcastic. A fat man in a baggy maroon tuxedo set up a long table and kept eight tin plates twirling on the ends of flexible sticks. Bech thought it was miraculous, but the man was booed. A touching black-haired girl from Bulgaria hesitantly sang three atonal folk songs into a chastened
silence. Three women behind Bech began to chatter hissingly. Bech turned to rebuke them and was stunned by the size of their wristwatches, which were man-sized, as in Russia. Also, in turning he had surprised Petrescu and the writer’s wife holding hands. Though it was after midnight, the customers were still coming in, and the floor show refused to stop. The Polish girls returned dressed as ponies and jumped through hoops the dwarf held for them. The master of ceremonies reappeared in a striped bathing suit and black wig and did an act with the dwarf involving a stepladder and a bucket of water. A black dancer from Ghana twirled firebrands in the dark while slapping the floor with her bare feet. Four Latvian tumblers performed on a trampoline and a seesaw. The Czech mother and daughter came back in different costumes, spangled gold, but performed the identical act, the pigeons whirring, circling, returning, eating from the mother’s lips. Then five Chinese girls from Outer Mongolia—

BOOK: Bech
13.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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