The Ministry  of Restraint

Had he ever seen such unappealing trams? Aquamarine, with azalea swirls. But: “Beauty is secondary,” Alain reassured the mayor of Muñez. “My wife would find something to praise.”

And so she would, the generous Isabella. Isabella was blond, and had been educated in the United States—she spoke English even better than he. For all that, she was unmistakably of their country, this coarse little Central American nation. The huge brown eyes told you that much, the curve of the calf, the noticeable clothes. “I am just this side of vulgar,” she liked to tease.

“Beauty is secondary,” Alain said again. Secondary to engineering—the trams were well constructed. Secondary to trade—they were part of an important deal with far-off Japan. Secondary to the governance of the country that he loved immoderately.

The mayor sighed with relief. “Your perspicacity—I gambled on it,” risking a sort of wordplay, for Alain was minister of gaming. Through the years he had become confidante and advisor to almost everybody in government—his colleagues could rely on his discretion and good sense, and his lack of personal ambition let them take all the bows. Today he had come from the capital to inspect the trams on behalf of the minister of commerce.

Now he shook hands with the mayor, and, with grace surprising in a man his size, swung aboard a tram setting off down the broad central avenue. “Smooth,” he called to the mayor from a window, and turned away perhaps a moment too soon. He hoped he’d never have to deal with this lout again, but of course he would: Dealing with louts was part of his caretaker’s job . . .

Halfway to the train station, he got off and entered a café for a glass of wine and a slice of the local pâté, compounded of anchovies and hog liver. And another slice. During a conference he often thrust something into his mouth to avoid taking the last word. At home he raided the refrigerator. The family housekeeper knew which nights he woke up hungry, though Isabella slept through his absence from their bed. So perhaps he could be considered overweight . . . not if you asked his staff, who associated appetite with kindliness; and not if you asked the public, who didn’t recognize his rarely photographed face so couldn’t comment on his physique; and not if you asked his tailor, scrupulously silent as he enlarged another garment; but decidedly if you asked his daughter, who called him “Fatty.” Isabella, though, appreciated the extra flesh around Alain’s middle—she liked to finger it, even knead it, during lovemaking—just as she appreciated his bright blue eyes and thick hair. She might flirt with others, but always in the energetic, meaningless way of a woman true to her man. Alain was faithful, too.

The waiter stood ready to stuff another slice of pâté into his customer’s arteries. “No, thanks,” said Alain, smiling. He paid the bill and climbed a narrow staircase to a casino of the exact size—six tables—permitted everywhere except on the coast. There, big resorts flourished, drawing tourists from all over the world.

The draperies in the dim room were closed against the afternoon sun, giving the honest place the atmosphere of a thieves’ den. The croupiers wore ill-fitting tuxedos and the manager’s eyes glided every which way as if on the lookout for police. In fact he had strabismus. Alain bought an amount of chips equivalent to a week’s salary. His companions at the roulette table had the peaceable look of habitués. He played black until he won a few times; then 13 through 24 until he was sitting behind two silos of chips. He ran his finger up them, down them . . . He bet again: on his wife’s age at their marriage, 22; what a lighthearted loving girl Isabella had been then, still was, despite the decades, despite the death of their son at birth, not often mentioned between them, but sometimes. He did not bet on the boy’s age, which was always zero; and anyway zeros belonged to the house. He bet on the age of their bold daughter, 16; on the factors of his own age, 9 and 5. The darling ball ran, stopped, spun, popped out of its trough, grew still. When he had tripled his stake he quit.

And now he was eager to get home. He walked to the train station. He bought a ticket and boarded the late-afternoon express. The train was sleek and silvered. But Alain and the minister of transportation had persuaded the railroad to give passenger cars an old-fashioned design: a corridor down one side and compartments seating six on the other. Brass fixtures, mahogany panels, conductors wearing high-visored hats and double-breasted jackets—the whole first-class works, though there was just one class of ticket. He took a seat by the window—the train was only half full on this late-afternoon run. When it moved out of the station and turned slightly, revealing its gleaming curve, he leaned forward like a schoolboy and banged his forehead on the window.

The one other passenger in the compartment, seated opposite, made a sympathetic grimace. She was about thirty, and very tall. He calculated that if you added the length of her legs to the length of her torso to the extraordinary length of her neck to the length of her head she would reach six feet, his own height. Her forehead was narrow and her hair was pulled up into a sort of topknot, as if all that was needed to complete her beauty was a little extra height . . . He could hear his wife making that sort of wisecrack, though of course out of this woman’s hearing; Isabella was rarely unkind. The woman’s upper lip was constructed of two short peaks. She wore glasses: Their extreme convexity told him she was farsighted. She also wore an ur-dress, sleeveless, waistless, ankle-length, the same coconut color as her skin—perhaps she had dyed one to match the other . . .

She looked up from her book and awarded him a grave smile. “Minister.”

“Ah . . . we know each other? Forgive me . . .”

“I am vice president of the Artisans’ Union. You spoke to us a few years ago . . . about trust. Priests and doctors must be trustworthy. Gambling masters, too. ‘When a country can trust its croupiers the polity is safe.’ That’s what you said.”

The usual speech, no less sincere for being canned. “Forgive me, I remember you now,” he lied. Perhaps she had been shorter then; perhaps she hadn’t attained her full height until this afternoon. Though it was almost evening, wasn’t it. The sun was already on the other side of the mountain. The fields there would be a melting gold, the hills beyond the fields rosy, and beyond them the capital’s mellow buildings would still be drenched in light. But here the silver of the train reflected a darkening green.

“My name is Dea . . . ,” she said helpfully. He didn’t catch the surname. He was leaning forward again to watch the glistening locomotive penetrate the mountain—the locomotive, and the first passenger car, and the second. Then others, hidden from him as the train whipped itself straight, slid farther in. Their own car entered the tunnel now—there was a black moment. Then the lamps in the compartment began to glow.

He leaned back. She was reading again. Well, he too could read. He placed palm on briefcase; lists and tables lay within, a book of essays on agricultural reform. He read the book’s lengthy introduction. He read the first essay . . .

There was a dull noise, heavy and prolonged.

There was a powerful shudder which shook both the strong vehicle and the passengers within.

The train stopped.

In an instant uniformed men were running along the corridors—a dozen Charles de Gaulles. Men in overalls and caps ran after them. Bringing up the rear flapped a frightened old woman dressed in black, one of those ancient widows the country harbored.

Dea took off her glasses. Her eyes were the dark indefinable metal of old coins. “What do you suppose?” she said.

A second black witch flew down the corridor—fleeing disaster, she probably thought, but running toward it in fact.

“I think there has been a cave-in,” Alain said. He wondered how much stone and shale had fallen, and how much damage it had done, and whether anyone had been hurt.

Dea craned her long neck toward the window. The lamps within the train went out. The chalky sides of the tunnel turned a fitful lilac—the tunnel’s own electrical system apparently only weakened, not destroyed.

“Someone will give us a report,” Alain said.

“Yes, Minister. We need only make conversation. I was in Muñez buying materials for my work. I am a weaver.”

“I was in Muñez vetting some trams as a favor to the minister of transportation. I am a dogsbody, by choice.”

She nodded as if she understood, and perhaps she did. “Your first name is French.”

“My mother,” he said, packing into those words a transplanted Parisienne yearning all her life for the boulevards. “Yours is . . . theological.”

“Classical. My father was a schoolteacher. And a soccer coach.”

“Ah . . . and do you follow our national sport?”

“My husband does.”

They had seen the same recent movie, on which they disagreed. But they shared admiration for Borges, for Dufy. They smiled tolerantly at saint worship and all that. Dea was sure that death was soon followed by rebirth. “We travel through lifetime after lifetime,” she told Alain.

A conductor appeared at their door, speaking not only to them but to the whole car, speaking as if through a megaphone. “A wall has crumbled,” he shouted. A little girl ran up to him and pulled at his jacket. “The train—”

“Come back, Ella,” called a man’s voice.

“—stopped just in time,” the conductor went on. “No one has been hurt, a few of our men bruised. But the train cannot proceed, and we must walk backwards through the tunnel.”

“Walk backwards!” the child laughed. “Not me!”

“Well, walk forwards, but in the direction from which we came.”

“I want to walk backwards,” said the contrary child.

“Ella!” the man called again.

There was an orderly scramble from the train. A wheelchair and its feeble old occupant took some time to disembark. “My suitcase,” fretted a woman. “Carry the thing yourself,” snapped a man. “This way,” called a voice from the rear.

Seventy-five passengers edged past the stalled train. They were beamed on by the workmen’s batteried torchlights. Only the figures were illuminated; the walls of the tunnel, the floor of the tunnel, even the air in the tunnel, was black. The little girl so eager to walk backward rode on her father’s shoulders. A large fellow in a leather jacket carried the crippled old man in his arms; another carried the wheelchair, folded, above his head; a calm attendant in a flowered turban followed the threesome. Behind the last car the crowd reassembled, along with engineer and brakeman and conductors and firemen. The old man got resettled in his unfolded chair. Now they were addressed by the chief conductor, who wore epaulets.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we must return to Muñez. We will walk eastwards through the tunnel.”

“. . . an important appointment!” shouted a man.

“We regret the inconvenience. Tonight the transportation department will provide lodging in Muñez hotels. Tomorrow we will board buses to the capital.”

“Buses go around the mountain, for God’s sake,” said the man with the important appointment. “They take eight hours.”

“Alas . . . Railway personnel are ready to escort us now. Only a few miles. A small commuter train will be waiting at the mouth of the tunnel.”

“The evening express will smash us to pieces . . . oh!” A trio of old women.

The chief conductor permitted himself a sigh. “All trains have been cancelled,” he assured the crowd.

Alain planned the days ahead: no trains at all during the repairs, then one track opened, a small army of men deployed to direct operations first in one direction and then the other. There’d be television inaccuracies to correct, newspaper editorials to counter, extra buses to commandeer for that lengthy mountainside road. Private planes would rent themselves out to fly from the capital to Muñez and back again until one crashed into the mountain—no safe air route had yet been discovered.

The procession was led by the chief conductor. The other train workers distributed themselves among the passengers, their torchlights supplementing the tunnel’s flicker.

Alain and Dea were near the end of the line. He carried his briefcase in his outer hand. In hers she carried a rattan sack containing samples of other rattan. Their inner hands were free. Occasionally their knuckles brushed. The man with the important appointment, who had broad but somewhat hunched shoulders, complained at length to a fellow traveler, apparently a stranger, who murmured with idle sympathy and occasionally turned his head as if searching for someone to take his place.

In half an hour the light from the torches melded with another light, a gray evening light. They breathed fresher air. The tunnel was behind them now; they stepped into knee-high grasses. An old wooden train waited. It had only three cars, and most passengers had to remain on their feet during the ride to Muñez. The man in the wheelchair and his attendant were stowed like baggage in one corner. The little girl Ella insisted on curling up in an overhead rack. Dea stood in the aisle, alongside the hunched man, who was still muttering. Alain stood beside Dea.

At the empty station—how many hours earlier had he boarded that fateful express train, right here?—the mayor was waiting under a grand nineteenth-century arch. He looked like the last soldier in a defeated army. He distributed hotel vouchers. Then he and Alain walked together to his office, past stone mansions with delicate balconies: mansions sacrificed to governmental need. Hibiscuses flourished everywhere: the national tree, beautiful but easily bruised. At the mayor’s desk, from the mayor’s chair, Alain spoke briefly on the telephone to the president, and briefly also to Isabella, who thanked God and cried a little, then at great length to the minister of transportation, and at medium length to his own second in command. By the end of the final conversation it was midnight.

“Minister—you are welcome to spend the night at my house.”

“It’s the oddest thing—I travel so much that now I can sleep only in hotels. But I thank you.”

The mayor seemed relieved. Alain looked at his voucher, recognized the address, and set off along the main avenue. A late tram moved behind him like a bodyguard. Ahead the hotel was dimly lit. Alone, in its lobby, sat the woman. He had forgotten her name—Lea?—but he had not forgotten her. From the moment the train thudded to a halt, sharply braked by the quick-witted engineer—“I saw the side of the tunnel crack, half a mile ahead,” the man would say on television. “I saw rocks appear in the crack; I knew what was happening; I prayed that the engine would stop clean and the cars behind not pile up, derail . . .”—from that moment of death averted, of survival ensured, Alain and the woman had been twisted together like cars in the wreck that hadn’t happened. He approached her chair and held out his hand. She took it.

Alain remained in Muñez another several days. There were officials to speak to before he returned to the capital to meet with another shaken bunch. For the next several months the unfortunate occurrence in the tunnel would call on his patience and his willingness to let somebody else end a conversation. By some miracle no plane crashed into the mountain.

The rest of the survivors rode to the capital the next day on the extra buses that had been pressed into service. Dea arrived home at five in the afternoon. Luc’s pharmacy occupied the front of their house, and when she entered he was waiting on a customer, explaining the possible side effects of a medication. Seeing Dea, he interrupted his own speech, though without moving from behind the counter. He looked at his wife with his usual kindly upward stare—he was a short man—and his already pale skin paled further with relief renewed, gratitude renewed—they had spoken on the telephone the evening before, he knew she was safe, but still. From an expertly penned-in corner their two-year-old sent up a howl of welcome.

Dea did not work the next day. Instead she took her beloved son to the park, and they watched the puppet show, and listened to the band, and shared a giant dish of ice cream. But the following morning she returned to her trestle table in the back room of their house, a windowed studio looking out on a small garden fringed with hibiscus. The child played at her feet with tongue depressor soldiers and a castle made of empty pill vials.

Before she had left the capital for Muñez she had moistened sixty-seven strips of willow. She had inserted one end of each of them into the groove running around the circumference of an oaken disk: the base of a new basket. Now the construction rested upside down atop a mold of her own design. The willow staves, curving downward, had dried. The inverted, embryo basket reminded her, as always, of a woman gone mad, a flat-headed woman with evenly spaced locks of hair revealing glimpses—sixty-seven of them, in this case—of a demented, feature-less head.

She selected a long piece of flexible cane the color of an old man’s teeth. She dampened it. She removed a single willow stave and slid the end of the cane into its place, at an angle, and returned the stave to the groove, fixing the new cane forever. She began to weave, removing and replacing every second stave as she worked. This first circumnavigation was always the most exacting, calling for the strictest control, and she could afford to concentrate on nothing else but the work of her hands, though she was alert to the child, and she knew that a light rain had begun outside, and she was aware too of a memory of another rhythm accompanied by a sighing, a more delicate music than she would have expected from a man so . . . robust. She rested a burning cheek against briefly idle knuckles.

It was ten years before she saw him again. The capital is a big place, and people mingle freely, garments brushing garments in the squares and in the markets and in court. But Alain and Dea did not chance to meet in the public places. And Alain and Isabella did not go to crafts fairs; and Dea and Luc were not fans of the pageantry of government—the splendid inauguration of a new president during that decade, for all the attention they paid it, might have happened on another planet. The new president asked Alain to continue as minister of gaming.

Ten years. The concert hall was packed. The soprano, now an international star, had been raised in Dea’s neighborhood; as girls they had been friends. Dea received a pair of tenth-row tickets. Luc chose to stay home with the children—there were three now—so Dea invited a fellow artisan, a young man whose abstract weldings were not yet famous.

Alain and Isabella were also in the orchestra section, a few rows behind and to the right of Dea and her companion. Alain had an excellent view of neck, ear, sometimes nose, a part of her brow. Her hair had been cropped. The soprano sang a program of familiar arias and love songs. She sang them to Dea—that’s what he thought; she sang them on Alain’s behalf.

Dea and her youthful escort stayed seated during the intermission. Alain and Isabella greeted friends in the lobby and drank champagne. Little sandwiches of smoked carp were particularly tasty. The second half of the program was Lieder. How varied she was, the soprano; how many strings she had to her larynx. He said that to Isabella—through her, really.

After the last “Brava,” after the final encore, the members of the audience stood, slipped past each other, murmured . . . Dea turned. Ten years had added a single thrilling line to each of her cheeks. He sucked in his stomach. Their eyes met for several seconds.

My handsome companion is a friend only . . . That was all she wanted to say. She had much to boast of, though. She had become a master weaver. She taught at the crafts school. Her baskets, mostly handbags, were sought after by rich women, by tourists. She was working on an oval one at present—and the next day she returned to it, frowning, separating staves fiercely, choosing canes of conflicting colors, overlapping them, slewing and flitching. She made the lid of twined and strapped latticework, infiltrated with hexagonal weavings. It was a mad design. It would never catch on. It might not even sell, though her name smoked into the base was usually a guarantee.

That afternoon Alain took his daughter to the racetrack. She was twenty-six now, already divorced. He let her choose the horses. She chose according to the filly’s name, or the name of the sire, or the name of the dam, or the color of the jockey’s silks. Half-asleep, she watched the races on television in the clubhouse. Alain, leaning forward in his outdoor seat, followed each contest from start to finish. He panted, gasped, swore. They drove home with a small bundle of winnings.

Again ten years passed. Another new president had just been elected. The inauguration took place in the Great Park, on a platform surrounded by flowers and facing a thousand folding gilded seats. On the platform sat the country’s one Nobel laureate, several former presidents, the new president, and all the ministers, Alain included, though he would soon retire and receive the usual medals. There were four young cadets holding flags, one cadet from each branch of the military service. Dea’s son, now serving in the air force, had been selected for this honor guard, perhaps because of his excellent school record, perhaps because of his unusual height. The families of everyone on the platform sat in the first, golden rows.

The oldest of the former presidents was very old indeed. He sat shrunken in his chair at the front of the platform, canes across his lap. Alain sat just behind him. Dea faced them from her aisle seat seven rows back. She shifted her body, and now she could see clearly the monkey face and diminished torso of the man whose current lifetime had lasted so long, and she could see, above his face, his face. Those remembered shoulders. Alain, for his part, could see the dark hair, the glasses, the long neck. Dea took off her glasses, hoping that their eyes might meet: But no, they were too far from each other. Nevertheless, they maintained a pseudo-gaze until the ex-president shuddered, and the long-sighted Dea guessed that he was foolishly about to rise. She rose. The president raised his rump and the canes rolled down his thighs and dropped to the dais and then to the ground. Dea strode forward. The old man stood and tottered and she saw that his crotch was wet. Alain slid out of his chair and caught the ancient figure beginning to fall and lifted him and held him in his arms like a dead child and watched Dea advancing and now their eyes did meet, but he was obliged to turn away in order to lay the ex-president across four chairs that had hastily been vacated. Alain bent down and opened the old man’s shirt and loosened his belt. “I’m a doctor,” said a fellow who had leaped onto the dais, and slipped his practiced hand underneath the shirt. The ex-president opened his eyes. Ambulance men appeared and policemen quieted the crowd (the four cadets stood without moving) and Alain, relieved of responsibility, straightened up in time to see Dea resume her seat. Luc raised his eyebrows at his wife. “CPR,” she explained. The old man wasn’t dead and thanks to Alain he wasn’t hurt. “I faint sometimes,” he insisted, “it’s nothing.” The ambulance took him to the hospital anyway. The inauguration went peaceably on. Afterward, Alain went to a grand dinner. During the meal he felt a roiling in his gut, ruining his appetite. Isabella shot him glances of easy compassion. She was still blond, still admired, still faithful.

Dea dined in a faux-rustic restaurant with Luc and their two younger children—the oldest, the cadet, had to continue holding his flag at the state dinner. Then parents and children went home. Everyone but Dea exhaustedly went to bed.

The complicated basket she had made on the day after the soprano’s concert had become a splendid success. Now people begged for her creations. Fruit bowls, hods, wine totes, charming round overnight bags—she made them for film stars, television personalities, the wives of industrialists. She had woven a cradle for the granddaughter of the King of Sweden. She accepted as students only weavers already proficient. She was, according to the minister of culture, a national treasure. The house she lived in with Luc and the children had grown taller by a story, and the garden was improved, and the pharmacy had acquired granite counters, and the workroom was all glass now.

Tonight she did not turn to her current project—a woven jewelry case, seventeen little drawers moving as smoothly as if lubricated—but to a private matter, a sculpture slightly bigger than life-size. She had been working on it for years. That fibrous vegetable material, thickly woven, can be made to resemble naked flesh seems unlikely; but under Dea’s hands this happened. Two standing figures melted into one. The slenderer of the two figures rested its head on the broader shoulders of the other figure, and atop the inclined head the hair was caught in a knot and sprayed outwards.

Alain left the inaugural banquet early. A brief rain had slickened the streets. He walked atop his own reflection until he came to a warehouse. A car followed him, like the tram that night in Muñez. At the warehouse he gave a password, entered, sat down with some men—some roughly dressed, some finely, all smoking, all flush with cash. They played for a throbbing hour; cards were all the world. Alain won big twice—once on a straight, once on a bluff. A scarred player gave him a murderous stare. Then the men from the car came in with their guns raised and arrested everybody except Alain. He turned over his winnings to one of them. Oh, these necessary stings.

Another decade and then some—thirteen years. The glass workshop was now a playroom for grandchildren—the cadet had become a captain and a father. After the Museum of Modern Art bought the untitled sculpture, Dea withdrew from her students, finished current commissions but refused new ones, and enrolled in the Academy of Pharmacy. She had not forgotten the science she’d mastered as a schoolgirl. She needed only a year of training to qualify, to join her ailing husband as partner.

One day during the rainy season, Luc upstairs in bed with a worsening cough, a blind customer suggested that Dea turn on the lamps. “I can feel darkness, like flannel,” he said as he tapped out with his cane. So she flipped three switches and then a fourth, and blew a fuse, and had to climb down to the basement where the fuse box lurked. While there she heard the two tones of the bell that meant the opening of the shop door. “One moment,” she called, and climbed back up, grunting a little on her arthritic knee.

His hair was still abundant. Or, rather, it seemed abundant—but her clever eye saw that it was abundant anew, after a bout of baldness. Below this second growth his custard brow looked less like flesh than the statue now in the museum. His blue eyes had faded to mauve, the color of the tunnel’s vault when the train’s lights had gone out. His lips had thinned. Under the handsome suit his chest had caved in.

So he was dying, thirty years late.

“Alain,” she said, breaking the long silence.

“Dea,” he said, his voice cracking.

“Alain, my own . . . some other lifetime. I promise.”

He nodded. She too inclined her head, and closed her eyes. She heard again the double tone of the bell.

At the Muñez hotel so long ago the room given to Alain was larger than Dea’s. In silent agreement they had selected hers. It was square and white, and had a single narrow bed against the wall. The window looked out on the deserted avenue. He bathed first, then she; then, naked, they met in the middle of the room, and embraced as if they meant to weld themselves into one being. His strong arm around her back fixed her body to his. Her head rested on his shoulder. Standing that way, they told each other of their lives until then. They abandoned reticence, even courtesy: They kept interrupting each other.

“A game of chance—no thrill like it, not even . . .,” he said. “Win or lose,” he said.

“My parents wanted me to become a doctor,” she said.

“I must go wherever it glows—casinos, track, lottery.”

“I was willing to study medicine. But I changed my mind, like little Ella today. I found my vocation. My fingers, the cane, they were meant for each other.”

“Cock fights in alleys, dice near dumps. Some fool knifed and left for—”

“The suitors who weren’t terrified of my height, they were terrified of my passion. Only Luc, such a kindly man . . .”

“—dead.” Dawn lightened the room. An early tram slid by outside their window. “I am responsible to my—”

“I am responsible to my—”

“—family,” he whispered.

“—family,” she moaned.

“—country.”

“—hands.”

He gave her that last word. He gave her his love. He would think of her almost every day for the rest of his life. Only his presence would he withhold.

They loosened their grip on each other then, and found their way to their only bed.

 

Photo: Adrian Assalve