Translated by: Eloína Prati dos Santos
Artwork by Miguel Betancourt
Lady in Seat 37
I had no idea what could be wrong with Reno. It was clearly more congenial than Vegas, and Ernest always gave me a rather large room and an extra complimentary sachet of bath salts. Besides, I knew the best address for piña coladas (just below the hotel), so that I felt free in a way I couldn’t when your father was alive. That’s what I liked to tell Jim during his Sunday phone calls, the children shouting in the background, the bathroom echo, the lawnmower, the breathlessness, anything that suggested Jim was holding the cordless phone with his shoulder while he went on with what he needed to do. “Listen, Mom… why don’t you try something different? There’s nothing wrong with liking Reno, but you don’t have to go there every year. (Jim going up the stairs.) Honestly, it doesn’t make sense that you still don’t know Europe. I can guarantee you’ll love it. (Jim opening the bedroom door.) It’ll expand your horizons. How about Paris? Do you know anyone who’s ever hated Paris? I’m sure you’ll sigh when you see those rooftops right out of the movies. It’s impossible for anyone to hate Paris. And, Mom, you can’t even imagine the town Isabelle and I found last year.”
There were basically two ways of getting to Étretat without a car: either by catching the number 24 bus in the depressing port town of Le Havre, or by taking the same number 24 in the opposite direction, from Fécamp beach. Étretat was a small place with fewer than 1,700 inhabitants, mistreated by the Norman sky and blessed by the ancient indentation of two cliffs, one on each side of the small gravel beach. The left cliff resembled an elephant drinking water. This involuntary artistic precision – created by a mixture of the insistent waves with traces of an extinct river that ran parallel to the ocean – dated from the Cretaceous. There were also remnants of a Nazi bunker, a golf course, a small church on the cliff to the right, an intricate mussel fishing system (visible only at low tide) and no trace whatsoever of the art nouveau casino, which had been destroyed by the Germans for security reasons.
Besides all that, there was the girl from the bakery.
When the phone rang I was still on the 24 bus, winding through another insignificant urban agglomeration. As long as there was a drink on the zinc counter top, as long as there was the national lottery, as long as there were retirement houses with sparse visits from children, all would remain like that until the end of time. Marta’s name blinked on the screen. Following the electromagnetic waves from myself to the network of antennas and from the network of antennas to Marta, I could see her on her filthy balcony in downtown Paris, her white apron with her name embroidered on it announcing that she was Latina, once in a while glancing into the lab, more specifically at her cage of rats with tumors, on which her doctoral dissertation depended. It was not as solid as a Norman house. The phone blinked until Marta heard my voice mail and decided not to leave a message. I put the phone in my pocket and then saw the American tourist staring at me, for a while maybe. It was shameful not to want to answer your phone.
Owner of Hôtel Detective
I left my hometown to stay away from my mother. My mother was an octopus. I lived in Paris, surrounded by the smells of curry and coriander, gearing my life towards stumbling into a public job that would enable me to live out my days in indolence. For 25 years I dreamed of a pool of blood in an ice hotel – that is, before there was ever a single ice hotel anywhere in the world. The first time I woke up rolling around in my own urine. My mother already had the belt in her hand. The last time my wife said, “Since you’re up, go take a look at the baby.”
I found the head of an Arab in Rouen, near the Flaubert Museum. At the time I worked as a dactyloscopist for the National Police. Rouen took me into three depressive crises. Joan of Arc had been burned there, so the city air carried the particles of the founding atrocities of our civilization. When my mother died, I was collecting fingerprints from the broken door of a Citröen ZX 1995. In Rouen even the Seine carried a trace of blood.
The coffin weighed a ton. You don’t know how much of the corpse and how much of the wood is aching in your bones. The day was sunny in Étretat, which means it would possibly rain later in the afternoon. Normandy is not for the weak, and the white crosses in Colleville-sur-Mer stand there to prove it. I walked along the cliffs for two, maybe three hours, between the fields and the edge of the cliff, thinking that I didn’t want to go back to Rouen and to the fingerprints.
I moved into the old mouldy house. One day out of the blue someone said, “Bernard’s thinking of selling the hotel.” One was leaving just as the other was returning to the maternal womb.
The first time we saw each other, he was near the hole in the cliffs, the one that surfaced at low tide. He’d moved to the other side, sat down for a few minutes on the beach, and then climbed the natural stone steps to cross the dark path again and go back to the city. He went back slowly, being very careful. It would be just like him to slip on a stone covered in algae and break his leg, to say the least. He didn’t understand yet what all those cement rectangles were, where the water went in and stank horribly, so I would later explain that for a long time that place had been a spot for mussel fishing.
Those of us from Étretat had no problem sitting on the pebbles or walking barefoot along the shore. Maybe the habit had desensitized the nerve endings on the soles of our feet. I went down there after closing the bakery. I had to enjoy every spring evening. It was a commitment more than mere contemplation.
Raymond’s wife was pregnant. Now he had to take care of everything, from the organic jams to the detective rallies that the hotel promoted twice a year – a game for adults who wanted to find the Sherlock Holmes within themselves. When I saw the belly on Raymond’s wife, I wasn’t sure whether the intruder was the baby or me. In fact, the only thing I was sure of was that the city was too small for us to hide our secrets.
That was what I was thinking when I saw him executing that awkward ballet of the tourists who dared venture beyond the Aval cliffs, where they were swallowed by the hole and then expelled back out when they had enough photos in the memory cards of their cameras. After conquering the sticky stinking part of it, he sank his legs into the shingle, and at this point they seemed to weigh a ton. Then he came towards me. There was time for him to think about what to say, and there was time for me to try to guess where he came from. From the tropics, certainly. He had the skin tone we all dream of having.
“I think you sold me a croissant today.”
Jim had made all the reservations necessary, so I felt thankful and relieved. He hadn’t been to mass in many years and I would tell him, “Jim, it would be good for you to go to mass once in a while,” or “I’m sure your father would very much like you to pray for him.” But Jim would change the subject. Then he would suddenly need to hang up the phone. But when I called on the last Sunday in March to say that I was considering his suggestion of getting to know Paris and that small town on the coast about which he and Isabelle had talked so much, Jim was extremely pleasant, even effusive. I can’t deny it made me soar with joy.
I got off the bus in the little town and, according to the map Jim had sent me in the mail, I only had to walk a hundred metres in a straight line to get to the hotel. Isn’t it incredible that people can live in houses that old, I thought as I dragged my suitcase to the faded building bearing the Hôtel Detective sign. The place was deserted. I rang the bell on the counter and finally someone showed up. I needed to realize that I was far from Reno, far from the bath salts without additional cost and the delicious piña coladas. Then I remembered Isabelle saying she’d wanted to cry when she arrived at the water’s edge, that beach, for the first time. Besides, I’d heard something about a casino.
The man who showed up at the desk and checked my reservation was a good-looking guy in his forties, with graying hair at the temples and the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to his elbows. He asked how my trip had been. To be honest, it took me a while to understand what he was saying to me. His accent in English was frightful, as is usually the case with the French.
“You’ll be staying in the Hercule Poirot room.”
“The detective. From Agatha Christie´s books.”
“Oh, sure! Hercule Poirot.”
I’d completely forgotten what Jim had told me about the hotel. “You’re going to like it. Each room was inspired by a detective. Do you remember how you devoured detective novels in the old days?” He and Isabelle had spent two nights in the CSI room, with luminal and bullet holes over the head of the bed. I took my key with the name of the detective engraved on a wooden square and, as I turned, I saw that there was another guy at the desk, waiting for his turn. He smiled. I immediately recognized one of the bus passengers. “Let me help you with the suitcase,” he’d said. I think he was Mexican, but his English was almost perfect.
Ernest wasn’t there, but some charitable soul would always show up, I thought to myself.
She asked why I was at Étretat. I knew this type of woman, who can’t stand silences and highly appreciates the vulgar chitchat of supermarket lines, and felt pity for all of them. I felt pity for the self-sufficient women who believed they could dye their grey hair on their own in the bathroom at home, but who cried alone in traffic when they heard a Carly Simon song. “I think we’re all here for the same reason,” I told her. There they all really were, except for me (without even a camera as a disguise). “Because of the cliffs?” she asked. The answer was so obvious that she then went on talking, without further interruptions from me, about the inexistence of cliffs on the American coasts, about her days in Paris being tiring, how there weren’t any amenities in France for people her age, and had I seen the eighty-year-old women stooping in the cold, walking with little bird-like steps that would break your heart. When we finally found her room on the second floor, identified by the Hercule Poirot plaque, she said, “It’s no wonder they had two world wars.” We stopped in front of her door and I looked straight at her, pulling a face of someone who didn’t see the least relation between one thing and the other. She was obviously embarrassed, which made her hesitate pathetically between entering the room and putting an end to our little conversation.
“I mean, there’s nothing wrong with Europe! Paris is beautiful, really amazing, but... there’s so much sadness in the air.”
I was anxious to meet Sophie, so I said I had to leave. I opened the door to the room (the Arsène Lupin) that I shared with Raymond, threw the backpack on the bed and left the hotel.
“He’s a national hero of the French Revolution,” Sophie had said about Arsène Lupin on our second date as I looked past the wall at the beautiful mansion that had now become a museum. She walked a few steps ahead of me, anxious to get beyond the city limits. It was so easy, as a matter of fact, to just walk along and see that we’d left the town behind. Sophie turned to me. “I’m kidding,” she said. “He’s a character from a paperback, a TV series and a bad movie with Romain Duris. Why is it you think we French people can’t create low-quality entertainment?”
I know it would have been easier if Marta and I had stayed in Cuiabá; nothing prevented her from doing her research with the rats there, in the labs there. I didn’t even know how to speak French when we decided to come. The thing is that my generation doesn’t opt for the easiest way, it opts for so-called happiness, which is the last thing you ever end up finding, after the curve of desperation. As I walked into the bakery one more time I was thinking about that. Happiness is a colossal task. You have to, for example, explain what Cuiabá is, what Cuiabá is like, where Cuiabá is. And, most of all, why there is a Cuiabá.
Luckily there was no one inside besides Sophie. It wasn’t necessary to hide anything, or at least not much. She smiled spontaneously and asked what time I’d arrived. I ordered two croissants. I loved to watch Sophie moving behind the counter.
“You know I can only meet you at six. Look for a way to have fun until then.”
“See you at six on the beach.”
“Why on the beach?”
It was the fifth time the South American showed up. Five times in seven months – a good average for someone who’s doing something wrong. Étretat is a place visitors get to know in one day, everyone knows that beforehand. You start by climbing the Aval cliff, pause for lunch, and in the afternoon go up the Amont cliff with the little church on the top, then back to the hotel, take off your shoes, and maybe have a shower to help relax so you can go out again in time to see the sunset and savour mussels and French fries in a restaurant that won’t leave the least impression. Claude Monet was here for quite a while, it’s true. The same for Maupassant, whose letters to Flaubert are in the museum in Rouen. The head of the Arab found in front of the museum still haunts me. When they told me to look at it up close I yelled, “I’m an expert in dactyloscopy! I don’t want heads, I want fingers! Fingers!” So I’d say I’m satisfied with my life now. My son sleeps next to me at the reception desk, but it’s true that boredom is the worst of all evils – and that you have to invent mechanisms to keep from being devoured. The detective games are a mechanism. Sophie was a mechanism. To feel challenged is a mechanism.
My life in Paris was hard, my life in Rouen was hard. My father is a cross in a war cemetery and that transforms my life into a pile of bird poop. But now I have the strength to create mechanisms, my baby is a big mechanism that will survive despite me, as I survived despite my mother, my hotel is a big mechanism, each part planned to bring characters from detective stories to life: a hotel unique in the world!
Ordinary people spend one night in Étretat. Those who expect more from places and from their own existence stay longer. The ones who are scheming. The heroes and the bandits. Which side the South American was on was yet to be seen.
At six he was already there, looking out towards the sea, so centred on the line of the horizon line and an invisible Great Britain that it seemed to be enough for him. I went over and kissed him. He showed me his bare feet.
“See? I can walk on the... what are they called?”
I can walk on the galets. We don’t have a word for this.”
“Of course not.”
I grabbed a galet that was the size of my hand.
“Where are you staying?”
“The same hotel as always.”
It was an immense irony that he’d chosen Raymond’s hotel to stay – not one, but every time he came, describing to me in detail all the rooms that he knew, as if the main goal of coming here was to grasp Raymond’s great work little by little. I couldn’t tell him that I myself had seen many of those rooms, that we had violently taken those rooms a number of times, or that Raymond had neglected his business on my account so many times, taking colossal risks, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be better to meet in Rouen?” But Raymond didn’t want to hear about Rouen.
“They finally gave me the Sherlock Holmes room.”
“You don’t have to find out anything.”
We fell silent. People went up and down the stairs that led to the cliffs, some stopping to rest after each ten steps. They looked very small from where we were. They alone made us understand the size of the cliffs.
“I always make the wrong decisions. Do you think someone who considers herself a feminist can make the wrong decisions?”
“I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about.”
“Let’s get out of here, please.”
When I got home I would be sure to tell Jim, “It’s beautiful, but so tiring!” I went up both cliffs, taking it easy. I stopped frequently to catch my breath and take photos. Sometimes I asked other people to take my picture: that way I could show them to Linda and the other women in our bridge group while I told them the details of the trip.
I was already coming down the second cliff: it was the end of the afternoon and all I could think about was a cold drink. The wind was strong up there and once in a while a bird would glide over the stones and perch in some corner I couldn’t see. I was descending very cautiously, and when I had to stop, I looked out at the golf course on my right, although no one was playing golf. The truth is that I felt a little ashamed of getting tired, so I preferred to pretend I was distracted by the view. All of a sudden I saw that nice Mexican man going up the path to the top of the cliff with a blonde woman. She was quite beautiful and looked French. I’d been in Paris long enough to know what French women look like. She gave me a small nod of the head as she went by.
I sat at a bar on the edge of the beach and ordered an iced tea. As I told them when they asked me, I definitely did not notice a solitary man heading along the path to the cliffs. How would I? There were enough people on the beach that I didn’t notice anyone in particular. On top of that, I wasn’t feeling well. It wasn’t that I missed my house, just the opposite. I didn’t feel any wish at all to board the plane in two days, as I thought I should. That confounded me. I had a certain obligation to be worried about my camellias and verbena, but the truth is I couldn’t have cared less. I started to curse the place where I was. What right did it have to make me think about these things?
My house, the lights of Reno, that beach, when Jim was a baby and needed me – that all made want to cry. Then I heard a scream. Everyone there turned at the same time and some got up from their tables and went to the beach. We knew where it had come from and we were sure of it when the blond girl started coming down the path from the cliff. The whole place could be muffled in silence and even then we would know she was screaming and crying, because her body moved abruptly, as if she were fighting gravity and was losing.
When she arrived, a group of people had already formed to listen to her, but it took me a good while to really figure out what was going on. They all spoke French and I didn’t understand anything at all. Anyway, I already expected the worst. It’s common to have accidents in places like that – this was the first thing I thought after paying for the tea and trying to get away from the crowd that now took up the whole beach. I’m terribly afraid of heights and had refused to get too close to the edge of the cliff, something that doesn’t apply to other people, who often take risks and then say, “I’ve no idea how that happened.” That is, when they have a chance to say anything at all. Soon afterward there were sirens sweeping through all the small streets of the village, undoubtedly coming in from other towns.
I walked aimlessly for a while. I wanted to put off my return to the hotel as long as possible. Later, when I was asked why, I couldn’t say for sure whether deep down I suspected something or if I simply wanted to keep away from the whole mess, which was not mine. That wasn’t a sin.
Choosing random paths without paying the least attention, I stopped unwillingly thirty or forty minutes later in front of my hotel. Yellow police tape blocked the door. “I’m staying here,” I told the police officer, slowly pronouncing and rephrasing the sentence each time they asked me to repeat it until I could finally go in, followed by a man in uniform. I don’t remember exactly what I did then, but I imagine I collected my belongings to get out of there as fast as possible, though that didn’t prevent me from having the image of that bloody handprint on the white reception-desk wall engraved in my memory forever. It was, I was told later – not without difficulties with the English – the mark of the assassin’s hand.
“Dying far from home is a tragedy,” someone declared as I was being questioned.
Who could imagine that such a man, who owned his own nose and his own business, went up and down the cliff with a knife, ready to commit the most heinous of crimes? The fact that he was an ex-policeman in a way explained his fascination with the morbid, but for God’s sake, he had a son, the most precious thing you can create in life, and it won’t be much of a treat to watch the boy grow up so far away.
Night was definitely falling when a taxi stopped in front of the building. The man carrying a briefcase with several zippers remained humbled for an instant in front of the discoloured façade of the Hôtel Detective. He seemed to come from far off. He breathed in the sea air and then went inside. A few moments later, it was I who was inside the taxi asking the driver to take me to the nearest railroad station. Jim would certainly be at the airport waiting for me.
Carol Bensimon (1982) studied advertising and completed an M.A. in Creative Writing. She has published the novels Pó de parede (2008) and Sinuca embaixo d’água (2009), has written short stories and newspaper articles, and has translated comic strips. A new book, Faíscas, is forthcoming. In 2012 she was named one of the best young writers in Brazil by the Brazilian edition of Granta.
Eloína Prati dos Santos has taught at federal universities in Porto Alegre and Rio Grande, Brazil. She is the author of a number of critical articles and coordinator of books and journals on literature in English. She was on the Editorial Board of Interfaces (2001-2010) and was guest editor, with Sonia Torres, of ellipse 84-85 in 2010.