Settings

The Stories of Ray Bradbury 117


  ‘Jesus, that’s a hard grip,’ said the old man, surprised.

  Then he was gone, as if the rain had hustled him off in its own multitudinous running.

  The young man shut the upstairs door and stood for a moment looking at the figure on the bed and at last went over and as if by instinct put his hand down to the exact same spot where the old man had printed his hand in farewell not five minutes before. He touched the summer cheek.

  In his sleep, Tom smiled the smile of his father’s father, and called the old man, deep in a dream, by name.

  He called him twice.

  And then he slept quietly.

  Interval in Sunlight

  They moved into the Hotel de Las Flores on a hot green afternoon in late October. The inner patio was blazing with red and yellow and white flowers, like flames, which lit their small room. The husband was tall and blackhaired and pale and looked as if he had driven ten thousand miles in his sleep; he walked through the tile patio, carrying a few blankets, he threw himself on the small bed of the small room with an exhausted sigh and lay there. While he closed his eyes, his wife, about twenty-four, with yellow hair and horn-rim glasses, smiling at the manager, Mr Gonzales, hurried in and out from the room to the car. First she carried two suitcases, then a typewriter, thanking Mr Gonzales, but steadily refusing his help. And then she carried in a huge packet of Mexican masks they had picked up in the lake town of Pátzcuaro, and then out to the car again and again for more small cases and packages, and even an extra tire which they were afraid some native might roll off down the cobbled street during the night. Her face pink from the exertion, she hummed as she locked the car, checked the windows, and ran back to the room where her husband lay, eyes closed, on one of the twin beds.

  ‘Good God,’ he said, without opening his eyes, ‘this is one hell of a bed. Feel it. I told you to pick one with a Simmons mattress.’ He gave the bed a weary slap. ‘It’s as hard as a rock.’

  ‘I don’t speak Spanish,’ said the wife, standing there, beginning to look bewildered. ‘You should have come in and talked to the landlord yourself.’

  ‘Look,’ he said, opening his gray eyes just a little and turning his head. ‘I’ve done all the driving on this trip. You just sit there and look at the scenery. You’re supposed to handle the money, the lodgings, the gas and oil, and all that. This is the second place we’ve hit where you got hard beds.’

  ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, still standing, beginning to fidget.

  ‘I like to at least sleep nights, that’s all I ask.’

  ‘I said I was sorry.’

  ‘Didn’t you even feel the beds?’

  ‘They looked all right.’

  ‘You’ve got to feel them.’ He slapped the bed and punched it at his side.

  The woman turned to her own bed and sat on it, experimentally. ‘It feels all right to me.’

  ‘Well, it isn’t.’

  ‘Maybe my bed is softer.’

  He rolled over tiredly and reached out to punch the other bed. ‘You can have this one if you want,’ she said, trying to smile.

  ‘That’s hard, too,’ he said, sighing, and fell back and closed his eyes again.

  No one spoke, but the room was turning cold, while outside the flowers blazed in the green shrubs and the sky was immensely blue. Finally, she rose and grabbed the typewriter and suitcase and turned toward the door.

  ‘Where’re you going?’ he said.

  ‘Back out to the car,’ she said. ‘We’re going to find another place.’

  ‘Put it down,’ said the man. ‘I’m tired.’

  ‘We’ll find another place.’

  ‘Sit down, we’ll stay here tonight, my God, and move tomorrow.’

  She looked at all the boxes and crates and luggage, the clothes, and the tire, her eyes flickering. She put the typewriter down.

  ‘Damn it!’ she cried, suddenly. ‘You can have the mattress off my bed. I’ll sleep on the springs.’

  He said nothing.

  ‘You can have the mattress off my bed,’ she said. ‘Only don’t talk about it. Here!’ She pulled the blanket off and yanked at the mattress.

  ‘That might be better,’ he said, opening his eyes, seriously.

  ‘You can have both mattresses, my God, I can sleep on a bed of nails!’ she cried. ‘Only stop yapping.’

  ‘I’ll manage.’ He turned his head away. ‘It wouldn’t be fair to you.’

  ‘It’d be plenty fair just for you to keep quiet about the bed; it’s not that hard, good God, you’ll sleep if you’re tired. Jesus God, Joseph!’

  ‘Keep your voice down,’ said Joseph. ‘Why don’t you go find out about Parícutin volcano?’

  ‘I’ll go in a minute.’ She stood there, her face red.

  ‘Find out what the rates are for a taxi out there and a horse up the mountain to see it, and look at the sky; if the sky’s blue that means the volcano isn’t erupting today, and don’t let them gyp you.’

  ‘I guess I can do that.’

  She opened the door and stepped out and shut the door and Señor Gonzales was there. Was everything all right? he wished to know.

  She walked past the town windows, and smelled the soft charcoal air. Beyond the town all of the sky was blue except north (or east or west, she couldn’t be certain) where the huge broiling black cloud rose up from the terrible volcano. She looked at it with a small tremoring inside. Then she sought out a large fat taxi driver and the arguments began. The price started at sixty pesos and dwindled rapidly, with expressions of mournful defeat upon the buck-toothed fat man’s face, to thirty-seven pesos. So! He was to come at three tomorrow afternoon, did he understand? That would give them time to drive out through the gray snows of land where the flaking lava ash had fallen to make a great dusty winter for mile after mile, and arrive at the volcano as the sun was setting. Was this very clear?

  ‘Si, señora, ésta es muy claro, si!’

  ‘Bueno.’ She gave him their hotel room number and bade him good-by.

  She idled into little lacquer shops, alone; she opened the little lacquer boxes and sniffed the sharp scent of camphor wood and cedar and cinnamon. She watched the craftsmen, enchanted, razor blades flashing in the sun, cutting the flowery scrolls and filling these patterns with red and blue color. The town flowed about her like a silent slow river and she immersed herself in it, smiling all of the time, and not even knowing she smiled.

  Suddenly she looked at her watch. She’d been gone half an hour. A look of panic crossed her face. She ran a few steps and then slowed to a walk again, shrugging.

  As she walked in through the tiled cool corridors, under the silvery tin candelabra on the adobe walls, a caged bird fluted high and sweet, and a girl with long soft dark hair sat at a piano painted sky blue and played a Chopin nocturne.

  She looked at the windows of their room, the shades pulled down. Three o’clock of a fresh afternoon. She saw a soft-drinks box at the end of the patio and bought four bottles of Coke. Smiling, she opened the door to their room.

  ‘It certainly took you long enough,’ he said, turned on his side toward the wall.

  ‘We leave tomorrow afternoon at three,’ she said.

  ‘How much?’

  She smiled at his back, the bottles cold in her arms. ‘Only thirty-seven pesos.’

  ‘Twenty pesos would have done it. You can’t let these Mexicans take advantage of you.’

  ‘I’m richer than they are; if anyone deserves being taken advantage of, it’s us.’

  ‘That’s not the idea. They like to bargain.’

  ‘I feel like a bitch, doing it.’

  ‘The guide book says they double their price and expect you to halve it.’

  ‘Let’s not quibble over a dollar.’

  ‘A dollar is a dollar.’

  ‘I’ll pay the dollar from my own money,’ she said. ‘I brought some cold drinks—do you want one?’

  ‘What’ve you got?’ He sat up in bed.

  ‘Cokes.’
r />  ‘Well, you know I don’t like Cokes much; take two of those back, will you, and get some Orange Crush?’

  ‘Please?’ she said, standing there.

  ‘Please,’ he said, looking at her. ‘Is the volcano active?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Did you ask?’

  ‘No, I looked at the sky. Plenty of smoke.’

  ‘You should have asked.’

  ‘The damn sky is just exploding with it.’

  ‘But how do we know it’s good tomorrow?’

  ‘We don’t know. If it’s not, we put it off.’

  ‘I guess that’s right.’ He lay down again.

  She brought back two bottles of Orange Crush.

  ‘It’s not very cold,’ he said, drinking it.

  They had supper in the patio: sizzling steak, green peas, a plate of Spanish rice, a little wine, and spiced peaches for dessert.

  As he napkined his mouth, he said, casually, ‘Oh, I meant to tell you. I’ve checked your figures on what I owe you for the last six days, from Mexico City to here. You say I owe you one hundred twenty-five pesos, or about twenty-five American dollars, right?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘I make it I owe you only twenty-two.’

  ‘I don’t think that’s possible,’ she said, still working on her spiced peaches with a spoon.

  ‘I added the figures twice.’

  ‘So did I.’

  ‘I think you added them wrong.’

  ‘Perhaps I did.’ She jarred the chair back suddenly. ‘Let’s go check.’

  In the room, the notebook lay open under the lighted lamp. They checked the figures together. ‘You see,’ said he, quietly. ‘You’re three dollars off. How did that happen?’

  ‘It just happened, I’m sorry.’

  ‘You’re one hell of a bookkeeper.’

  ‘I do my best.’

  ‘Which isn’t very good. I thought you could take a little responsibility.’

  ‘I try damned hard.’

  ‘You forgot to check the air in the tires, you get hard beds, you lose things, you lost a key in Acapulco, to the car trunk, you lost the air-pressure gauge, and you can’t keep books. I have to drive—’

  ‘I know, I know, you have to drive all day, and you’re tired, and you just got over a strep infection in Mexico City, and you’re afraid it’ll come back and you want to take it easy on your heart, and the least I could do is to keep my nose clean and the arithmetic neat. I know it all by heart. I’m only a writer, and I admit I’ve got big feet.’

  ‘You won’t make a very good writer this way,’ he said. ‘It’s such a simple thing, addition.’

  ‘I didn’t do it on purpose!’ she cried, throwing the pencil down. ‘Hell! I wish I had cheated you now. I wish I’d done a lot of things now. I wish I’d lost that air-pressure gauge on purpose. I’d have some pleasure in thinking about it and knowing I did it to spite you, anyway. I wish I’d picked these beds for their hard mattresses, then I could laugh in my sleep tonight, thinking how hard they are for you to sleep on. I wish I’d done that on purpose. And now I wish I’d thought to fix the books. I could enjoy laughing about that, too.’

  ‘Keep your voice down,’ he said, as to a child.

  ‘I’ll be God damned if I’ll keep my voice down.’

  ‘All I want to know now is how much money you have in the kitty.’

  She put her trembling hands in her purse and brought out all the money. When he counted it, there was five dollars missing.

  ‘Not only do you keep poor books, overcharging me on some item or other, but now there’s five dollars gone from the kitty,’ he said. ‘Where’d it go?’

  ‘I don’t know. I must have forgotten to put it down, or if I did, I didn’t say what for. Good God, I don’t want to add this damned list again. I’ll pay what’s missing out of my own allowance to keep everyone happy. Here’s five dollars! Now, let’s go out for some air, it’s hot in here.’

  She jerked the door wide and she trembled with a rage all out of proportion to the facts. She was hot and shaking and stiff and she knew her face was very red and her eyes bright, and when Señor Gonzales bowed to them and wished them a good evening, she had to smile stiffly in return.

  ‘Here,’ said her husband, handing her the room key. ‘And don’t, for God’s sake, lose it.’

  The band was playing in the green zócalo. It hooted and blared and tooted and screamed up on the bronze-scrolled bandstand. The square was bloomed full with people and color, men and boys walking one way around the block, on the pink and blue tiles, women and girls walking the other way, flirting their dark olive eyes at one another, men holding each other’s elbows and talking earnestly between meetings, women and girls twined like ropes of flowers, sweetly scented, blowing in a summer night wind over the cooling tile designs, whispering, past the vendors of cold drinks and tamales and enchiladas. The band precipitated ‘Yankee Doodle’ once, to the delight of the blonde woman with the horn-rim glasses, who smiled wildly and turned to her husband. Then the band hooted ‘La Cumparsita’ and ‘La Paloma Azul,’ and she felt a good warmth and began to sing a little, under her breath.

  ‘Don’t act like a tourist,’ said her husband.

  ‘I’m just enjoying myself.’

  ‘Don’t be a damned fool, is all I ask.’

  A vendor of silver trinkets shuffled by. ‘Señor?’

  Joseph looked them over, while the band played, and held up one bracelet, very intricate, very exquisite. ‘How much?’

  ‘Veinte pesos, señor.’

  ‘Ho ho,’ said the husband, smiling. ‘I’ll give you five for it,’ in Spanish.

  ‘Five,’ replied the man in Spanish. ‘I would starve.’

  ‘Don’t bargain with him,’ said the wife.

  ‘Keep out of this,’ said the husband, smiling. To the vendor. ‘Five pesos, señor.’

  ‘No, no, I would lose money. My last price is ten pesos.’

  ‘Perhaps I could give you six,’ said the husband. ‘No more than that.’

  The vendor hesitated in a kind of numbed panic as the husband tossed the bracelet back on the red velvet tray and turned away. ‘I am no longer interested. Good night.’

  ‘Señor! Six pesos, it is yours!’

  The husband laughed. ‘Give him six pesos, darling.’

  She stiffly drew forth her wallet and gave the vendor some peso bills. The man went away. ‘I hope you’re satisfied,’ she said.

  ‘Satisfied?’ Smiling, he flipped the bracelet in the palm of his pale hand. ‘For a dollar and twenty-five cents I buy a bracelet that sells for thirty dollars in the States!’

  ‘I have something to confess,’ she said. ‘I gave that man ten pesos.’

  ‘What!’ The husband stopped laughing.

  ‘I put a five-peso note in with those one-peso bills. Don’t worry, I’ll take it out of my own money. It won’t go on the bill I present you at the end of the week.’

  He said nothing, but dropped the bracelet in his pocket. He looked at the band thundering into the last bars of ‘Ay, Jalisco.’ Then he said, ‘You’re a fool. You’d let these people take all your money.’

  It was her turn to step away a bit and not reply. She felt rather good. She listened to the music.

  ‘I’m going back to the room,’ he said. ‘I’m tired.’

  ‘We only drove a hundred miles from Pátzcuaro.’

  ‘My throat is a little raw again. Come on.’

  They moved away from the music and the walking, whispering, laughing people. The band played the ‘Toreador Song.’ The drums thumped like great dull hearts in the summery night. There was a smell of papaya in the air, and green thicknesses of jungle and hidden waters.

  ‘I’ll walk you back to the room and come back myself,’ she said. ‘I want to hear the music.’

  ‘Don’t be naïve.’

  ‘I like it, damn it, I like it, it’s good music. It’s not fake, it’s real, or as real as anything ever gets in this world, that?
??s why I like it.’

  ‘When I don’t feel well, I don’t expect to have you out running around the town alone. It isn’t fair you see things I don’t.’

  They turned in at the hotel and the music was still fairly loud. ‘If you want to walk by yourself, go off on a trip by yourself and go back to the United States by yourself,’ he said. ‘Where’s the key?’

  ‘Maybe I lost it.’

  They let themselves into the room and undressed. He sat on the edge of the bed looking into the night patio. At last he shook his head, rubbed his eyes, and sighed. ‘I’m tired. I’ve been terrible today.’ He looked at her where she sat, next to him, and he put out his hand to take her arm. ‘I’m sorry. I get all riled up, driving, and then us not talking the language too well. By evening I’m a mess of nerves.’

  ‘Yes,’ she said.

  Quite suddenly he moved over beside her. He took hold of her and held her tightly, his head over her shoulder, eyes shut, talking into her ear with a quiet, whispering fervency. ‘You know, we must stay together. There’s only us, really, no matter what happens, no matter what trouble we have. I do love you so much, you know that. Forgive me if I’m difficult. We’ve got to make it go.’

  She stared over his shoulder at the blank wall and the wall was like her life in this moment, a wide expanse of nothingness with hardly a bump, a contour, or a feeling to it. She didn’t know what to say or do. Another time, she would have melted. But there was such a thing as firing metal too often, bringing it to a glow, shaping it. At last the metal refuses to glow or shape; it is nothing but a weight. She was a weight now, moving mechanically in his arms, hearing but not hearing, understanding but not understanding, replying but not replying. ‘Yes, we’ll stay together.’ She felt her lips move. ‘We love each other.’ The lips said what they must say, while her mind was in her eyes and her eyes bored deep into the vacuum of the wall. ‘Yes.’ Holding but not holding him. ‘Yes.’

  The room was dim. Outside, someone walked in a corridor, perhaps glancing at this locked door, perhaps hearing their vital whispering as no more than something falling drop by drop from a loose faucet, a running drain perhaps, or a turned book-leaf under a solitary bulb. Let the doors whisper, the people of the world walked down tile corridors and did not hear.