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A Tale of Irony

 

 The membership also had aged. Each generation seemed to start off older than the previous one, and then, taking its time, ran downhill for another twenty years. The current membership ranged mostly from the middle-aged- which, by temperament at least, could pass in most settings as already moribund-to the very old. One such member, who had not been seen to move since the prior autumn, was said to be John Central himself; but the more scientifically-minded of the membership held this not to be likely.

On one particular spring evening, this august company was invaded by a young-truly young-man, perhaps still in his twenties. He sat somewhat uneasily in one of the very deep leather armchairs that were built to hold securely onto anyone who passed within a foot or two. He was dressed carefully, a suit and tie. His hair was parted neatly. He sat there, legs crossed, holding a highball, staring vaguely across the great expanse that was the library. Leather chairs, an occasional couch and a few tables were placed carefully at intervals throughout the room. Still more high-backed chairs were visible faintly in the distance along with a wheelchair or two. The room was lit only by a few standing lamps casting a yellow light downwards, perhaps light enough to read by,  and a feeble, sallow light up to a high, wooden-beamed ceiling obscured by cigar smoke and fog that had entered surreptitiously from the huge stone fireplace.

Slowly, a waiter lurched over to this young man and spoke softly to him, so softly that the man had to lean forward in order to hear. Then the waiter pointed in the direction of the fireplace. The young man rose from his chair, still holding his drink and accompanied the waiter slowly across the room.  

Sitting next to the empty, cold fireplace, somewhat in shadow, was another man. This man was tall, one could tell, and sat upright within the confines of his chair. His hair was gray, his features finely drawn; and he was smiling. He was of an indeterminate age,

old enough to have seen many things, one might guess, but still young enough to anticipate more things yet to come.            

“Forgive me for not standing,” he said, gesturing towards a table that sat closely before him and that held a decanter and two large snifters. “My name is Owen Shields,” he said, holding out his hand.

“I’m Charles Fielding,” the young man said, leaning over to shake hands.

“Yes, I know. Charles Fielding the third, is it? Or the second? I knew one of the first Charles Fieldings, I think your grandfather, perhaps? Or an uncle?”

“A round man with a red face?” said Charles Fielding-the fourth, as it happened. He sat down on a tall wing-backed chair the waiter had pushed up for him in front of the fireplace.

“The very same. Although when I first knew him, I would have described him more as oblong than round.”

“My grandfather. He became round as he grew older.”

“Yes. The effect of too much gravity. He was very kind to me when I was your age. Warned me against traveling through certain dicey neighborhoods. I was in the habit of traveling all over the world, for one reason or another; and I didn’t always take proper precautions. I think it is very possible that he might have saved my life on one occasion. He warned me out of Kurdistan when the Turkish and Iranians Kurds were fighting each other.”

“Grandfather was a man of the world, he used to say,” the younger Fielding said, draining his glass and looking for a place to put it down. “I think he told me that after his third marriage.”

“Here, let me take that,” Shields said, talking the young man’s glass and setting it down on the table. “And you must try this cognac. It is the best they have in this establishment.” He poured two glasses. “In fact, better,” he added, lowering his voice. “It is mine. Bought especially.” 

The younger man took the proffered snifter and swirled the liquid around in a practiced gesture. He held it up to the light, of which there was very little, smelled the glass carefully, and then tasted it.  “Excellent,” he pronounced it.

“Good. Very good,” the other man said. They both settled back in their chairs and stared at the fireplace, very much as if there had been a fire burning in it.

“It was kind of you to invite me over,” Fielding said, looking down into the recesses of his glass.

“Well, of course I knew your grandfather.” Shields leaned forward. “But, to be perfectly frank, I thought you could help me with a certain problem I have.”

“Well, if I can…”

“You see, there is this story I have in mind to write. It is an interesting story, I think, but strange. There are certain gruesome elements… Now, I know that you are an editor of a small magazine. I thought you might be able to tell me if this story is worth telling. As an editor, you have your finger on the pulse of the public. You have this exquisitely fine judgment about what the reader is thinking and feeling…”

Fielding laughed a little laugh. “Well, I don’t know about that. It is true that I put out a small magazine, but…”

“If you could give me just a few moments of your time, I would really appreciate it. You will be able to judge right off, I’m sure, if this story burns with the inner force of great fiction- if the characters jump out at you-if the narrative drives you along with unbearable suspense or… not.”

The two men stared at each other for a moment, then settled back in their chairs. Someone from some distant corner of the room made a flatulent sound.

Shield cleared his throat. “It starts with a young man being tortured deep in the bowels of a government building. The building itself is of the non-descript  architectural style found everywhere in Eastern Europe during the time of the various Communist regimes.”

“Wait a second. The story starts with the man being tortured? Shouldn’t there be something leading up to the torture? To explain why he is being tortured?”
“Well, I suppose. It doesn’t matter, really. The man could be an entirely innocent visitor from another country. A salesman. Perhaps a girdle salesman. Those were the days when there were still door to door girdle salesmen. Or the man could be the secret agent the security apparatus has taken him for. They have arrested him under the impression he was sent by a foreign country to foment trouble and provide liaison to the underground. What must be clear, however, is the man-I will call him, let’s see, Anthony- does not have the information the torturer is trying to extract. If he is, in fact,  a secret agent, he was clever enough to prepare for this exact contingency by making sure he never knew those critical details about the underground the secret police might want to know. He could never reveal, no matter what, what he never knew.

“So, there he is, lying on this bloody table in shackles. On a metal table alongside lie the tools of the torturing trade: hammers, pincers, a long rod with barbs on it, scalpels, lances of all different sizes and a couple of spikes large enough to have held Christ to his cross. The man’s pants legs are pulled up to the knees. Below, there is only a bloody mess of tissues and broken bones. Well, I think I can spare the reader much of the detail. The sensitive reader will imagine more than I can describe, anyway; and, no doubt, one or two will already be throwing up at this point.

“I think great literature should stimulate the whole gamut of human emotions: joy, rage, ennui, pathos, bathos, etc.; but should probably stop short, if possible, of making the reader throw up. This can be fixed, I think, during the editing process.

“The torturer, I should say, is an interesting man. Unlike most professional torturers, for whom torturing is a business, like accounting or tailoring, and, therefore, after a year or two of practice, is only a matter of routine, a daily interregnum between brushing one’s teeth in the morning and sitting down early in the evening for a dinner of mutton and cheese, this particular man-Captain Louie Something or Other- enjoys his work. He is a sadist. He giggles while he tears off an ear or a nose with his pincers. Working his way from one finger to the next with a large, scalloped pair of scissors sets him to laughing out loud. Consequently, he is likely to continue disassembling whoever he is torturing long past the point where he is able to elicit more information. In other words, at that point where a more professional torturer would take a break for coffee and a Danish, he keeps going.

“Anthony had come to realize all of this by the time Louie had smashed all the bones in his feet and was getting ready to start on his knees. Anthony knew he was going to die a long, painful death. But Anthony was a fast thinker, and his mind raced along now lickety-split to a plan that would precipitate his demise as quickly as possible. He confessed that he was, in fact, going to meet a representative of the underground on a bridge over the Dambovita that very evening exactly one hour from that very moment”

“The Dambovita, you say,” said Fielding, leaning forward attentively. “In Bucharest? Interesting.”

“Yes. Now, if Anthony was not going to miss that assignation, he pointed out to Captain Louie, they would have to postpone the torture for a while and make ready immediately to meet Agent X, as he chose to call this mythical head of the underground. Forthwith, Anthony was dressed up for the occasion. Leather wrappings were bound around each foot, allowing him to walk, although with considerable difficulty and great pain. He put on lederhosen, fashionable that year in Romania, a warm flannel shirt, and, in keeping with the surreptitious nature of the work, a fedora, pulled down over his eyes, and a cape. At the appointed time, observed carefully by police and other intelligence agents hidden on both banks of the Dambovita,  Anthony walked slowly to the middle of the bridge. Suddenly, without waiting for Agent X, and without warning, he jumped over the rail into the river below.

“Of course, Anthony expected to die. That was his purpose, to end his misery as quickly as possible; but perversely-isn’t that always the way it goes- he did not die. The cold water struck at him forcefully and dragged him under. His hat drifted away, and he loosed himself from the cape, which floated slowly to the surface. Being a vigorous young man and, as it happened, a powerful swimmer, Anthony managed now, despite excruciating pain in his feet, to swim underwater through the dark and dirty river to a piling under the bridge. When he came to the surface to breathe, he heard the crackle of gunfire and watched as his fedora and his cape were torn apart by bullets as they floated downstream.  Then there was silence, except for voices coming out of the dark cursing in Romanian. He didn’t speak Romanian, but they sounded like curses to him, full of guttural and spitting sounds.

 “He stayed there in the freezing and fetid water the rest of the night, the cold thankfully numbing the pain a little. In the early morning he drifted to the eastern bank of the river, where he took hold of a barge that was passing downstream.

“In the next number of days, he had many adventures as he made his way along the river to freedom. The Romanians, like any other people, are made up of diverse persons, some good and some bad. Some people hauled him out of the river, fed him by their campfires, dressed his wounds and gave him new, dry clothes. Then there were others who struck at him with sticks in order to steal his new clothes and then threw him back into the river. There are both good and bad Romanians, but after a number of consecutive beatings and other unlucky experiences, Anthony concluded that an balance, they were bad. Of course, he did not see them at their most congenial, singing those folk songs which are their pride and their heritage. At this point in their history, many people lived off the river by fishing and scavenging. As scavengers, they were always pleased to see the occasional dead body floating by, having been cast into the river upstream by the secret police. They were naturally put out, therefore, to discover that Anthony wasn’t really dead at all and didn’t have anything worth stealing anyway. So, he discovered, they were very often in a bad mood.

“Still, in due time, he had passed beyond any possible pursuit and stood proudly on land as a free man-although painfully since the broken bones in his feet had not knit together properly.”        

“That is indeed an exciting story,” said Charles Fielding, the fourth, putting his empty snifter on the table, “but don’t you think the narrative would move along more quickly if you left off some of that description? Does the reader really need to know the temperature of the river? And aren’t all rivers dirty and dark?”

Owen Shields frowned a little, then bent over and poured the younger man more cognac. “The story is just getting started,” he said, a faint note of petulance creeping into his voice.

For no particular reason, the fireplace belched a small acrid bit of smoke that drifted slowly up to the ceiling.

“Anthony returned home and was given assignments of increasing responsibility, although none that required spending too much time on his feet. But his terrible experience in Romania had left its mark. Many nights he woke up gasping from the same recurrent dream, in which he was once again sinking into that particularly dark and

particularly dirty river that ran through the center of Bucharest to the sea. And so things went. In time the world grew older, and the various Communist tyrannies in Eastern Europe disappeared, even, finally, in Romania. In what could be construed as a loss of public support, Nicolae Ceasescu, its long time ruler, was machine- gunned to death.

“The torturing responsibilities of the secret police were greatly diminished in the new Romanian republic, and so Captain Louie found himself at loose ends. He knew how to do very little else. Despite his familiarity with hammers, nails, screws, and the like, he had no real knowledge of carpentry. He had difficulty opening a bureau drawer. Although he knew how to make an electrical spark between two live wires, fixing a broken lamp was quite beyond him. He couldn’t cook. Having no skills, inevitably he drifted into the diplomatic corps. When the opportunity arose some years later, he chose to accompany the designated prime minister to New York City to attend a meeting of the United Nations. This was a mistake.

“It is human nature, I suppose, to think that one’s own behavior, whatever it is, is honorable and above reproach, and that one’s motives, if properly understood, will be seen to be admirable. So much is true, also, of professional torturers. After all, someone has to be the hangman. Someone else has to serve the community by restraining criminals, forcibly, if necessary. And who will protect us against foreign evil-doers, if not the torturers? From time immemorial, torture has held an honorable place in society. But, it must be granted, those who have been tortured, nevertheless, tend to remain resentful. Jonathon, for one, felt he had been treated unjustly, and he had not forgiven Captain Louie.

The organization in which Jonathon worked and had risen in authority was in position to keep track of the whereabouts of Captain Louie. Moreover, there was a place where Captain Louie could be kept safely, quietly and against his wishes, his diplomatic status notwithstanding. Within a day of Louie’s arrival in New York City, he had been brought to this place and tied to a table face up.  Jonathon stood next to him arranging hammers, nails and whatever else he could remember from the time he was the one lying on the table. He intended to start at the ankles and work his way slowly in a cephaled direction breaking every bone in Louie’s body. He had the thought-the hope, at least-that his recurrent nightmares of the uncommonly dark and dirty Dambovita would finally come to an end, giving him peace. At the very least a very bad guy would come to a bad end.

“He managed to get as far as breaking Louie’s ankle with a stroke of the hammer. Then Captain Louie began to cry. What was this, Anthony thought.  I didn’t cry when I was being tortured. He took out a set of pincers to try out on some loose thigh tissue, but found himself unable to give it a good hard squeeze. Captain Louie was wailing now more than screaming, like he should. Jonathon found himself becoming disquieted.

“What Jonathon discovered is that not everyone is able to torture someone else successfully. Actually, probably only one out of twenty individuals, however eager and enthusiastic they may be, feels comfortable causing other people pain, especially children. If the United States Army were to make torture part of basic training, most trainees would quickly wash out of the program. Of course, that would still leave a cadre of perhaps 30 thousand trained torturers, which I imagine would be sufficient for a country of this size.

 “ ‘ All right, stop crying,’ Jonathon told Louie irritably. ‘I give up.’

 “ ‘Can I go home?’ Louie asked, cheering up immediately.

“But it was not so simple. In his day, Captain Louie had tortured many other people besides Jonathon, and one of them-we will call him Bill- was a colleague of Jonathon. Bill had often remarked bitterly to Jonathon about Louie’s putting out his right eye with his thumb, meanwhile giggling and whistling a happy tune. He would have taken his other eye too, but in the nick of time word came from higher up that Bill was to be exchanged for a Romanian spy who had been caught trying to kill a satirical cartoonist with a poisoned umbrella. Now that Louie was in their clutches, Bill told Jonathon in no uncertain terms, he was going to end up dead-or Jonathon was going to end up dead. Unlike Jonathon, Bill had killed many people over the years, and his threat had to be taken seriously.”

Owen Shields paused in this narrative when he noticed Charles Fielding the fourth looking at his watch. It was so easy, Shields thought, to lose the reader’s attention- or, in this case, the listener’s attention. He started speaking more quickly and in a louder voice.

“Torn now between the desire to let Captain Louie go and the need to satisfy Bill, Jonathon hit on a compromise. He explained to Louie that he was going to let Louie loose in Van Cortland Park and give him a half-hour head start to find his way to the Romanian embassy before notifying Bill that he was free to hunt for him. He also mentioned that it was probably a bad idea to go to the police since Bill was a ranking official in the police department.

“One would have thought that Louie would have gotten a cab and made it home in plenty of time despite limping and bleeding from his broken ankle, but Jonathon had not counted on the Captain’s general level of ineptitude. Louie got into a fight with his cab driver, who he thought was taking him the long way around, and after a pointless altercation in which the cab-driver, a Hungarian who had no particular affection for Romanians, beat him about the head, he was abandoned at the emergency room of a local hospital. In no time at all, he was in police custody and than back on a table in another safe house looking up at Bill.

“Now  Bill, who had killed many people at a distance with a sniper’s rifle before Louie put out his good eye, discovered, after removing one of Louie’s eyes, that he, too, was not comfortable killing at short range. Certainly, he was not prepared to listen to Louie’s hysterics, which struck him as unseemly. Disgusted with himself, with Louie, and with the general nature of things, he let Louie go.

“It turned out, of course, that the Romanians were not prepared to take formal notice of this incident.”

“A tale full of irony,” Fielding remarked, leaning forward to pour himself another brandy.

 “I’m not through yet!” Shields remarked, rather forcibly. He settled back in his chair and began again. “When Captain Louie returned to Romania, he discovered that he had lost favor with his superiors, for whom, frankly, he was an embarrassment. They could overlook his having been a torturer and a sadist, but his being an idiot also seemed insupportable.  He was given a small pension and told to go away.

“Now, it must be said, besides being a sadist, a torturer, and an idiot, Louie was basically not a pleasant person. He had many enemies and only one friend, a man he had known since early childhood and with whom he had shared intimacies and many fine moments. He was eating dinner one night with this man in an outdoor café, when the fellow got up suddenly and stabbed Louie in the chest with a knife, then ran off into the darkness. It was then that Louie decided that he could not feel safe in Romania, or anywhere else in Europe, for that matter. There were too many people who wanted him dead. In fact, in all the world, there was only one person who he knew for a fact did not want to kill him.”

“Jonathon?” asked Fielding, peering intently at Shields.

“Exactly.”

“Ironic.”

“Very ironic. I’m thinking of calling this tale Irony. Anyhow, to make a long story not much longer than it needs to be, Captain Louie sought out Jonathon and under his sponsorship returned to the United States. Jonathon, who may have been afflicted by a kind heart, found Louie a menial job which he accepted gratefully. And so, Louie became the latest of a number of foreign torturers to immigrate to the United States and, like so many immigrants before him, add his own small measure to the economy

“Well, what do you think?” Shields said, leaning forward attentively. “What is your professional opinion?”

“Well,” Fielding began judiciously, “I think, first, I should tell you that the magazine I put out is not a literary magazine. It is what we in the trade call a trade magazine. It deals with the manufacture and use of steam presses. Everyone in the steam press industry reads it. Still, every once in a while we will do a work of fiction, if the story revolves around steam presses.  Since you ask my opinion, I will give it to you. I’m afraid your story doesn’t work for me. Of course, there are issues of pacing and a lack of telling detail, the weather, etc.  But, my primary objection is psychological. You know, literary characters have to behave consistently. You can’t just move them around like chess pieces. I cannot believe that Captain Louie Whatever would have turned to Jonathon for help or that Jonathon would have given it. It just doesn’t ring true.”

“I see what you mean,” Shields said softly, lowering his head.

Fielding leaned forward to rest a comfortable hand on the other man’s sleeve.  “But that doesn’t mean you should stop writing. Certainly not. I think you have a lively imagination.”

“Thank you,” Shields said, dispiritedly.

“Well, look who’s here,” Fielding said, rising from his chair. He watched while a very pretty young woman wound her way to them across the library floor. When she arrived, he grabbed hold of her and kissed her.

“Sir,” he said, turning to Shields, who was struggling to come to his feet, I want to introduce my wife.

Shields leaned on a crutch that he had taken from behind his chair. He shifted the crutch to his other side in order to shake the young woman’s hand.  “Excuse me,” he said smiling and looking to the crutch, “an accoutrement of old age. Miss Eloise, I think. Is that right?”

She nodded.

“How did you know my wife’s name?” Fielding asked.

“Well, you know, in this place where time moves so slowly, news moves very quickly. I had heard that you were recently married and were about to go on your honeymoon.”

“Did you know we are planning to visit Romania?”

”I think I may have heard something about it.” Shields turned to the young woman. “You’re not concerned about the riots? I heard that their political disputes have spilled into the street.”

“I’m sure Charlie will protect me,” she said grabbing hold of Fielding’s arm and looking up at him adoringly.

“Of course,” said Shields.

“And now we must leave,” Fielding said, looking at his watch again. “We are late for a dinner engagement across town. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you, sir.”

“The pleasure was all mine. Thank you again for your help. Oh, if you are in a hurry, you might ask the bell captain to get you a taxi.”

They all smiled graciously, bowed a little; and the young couple left.

“What a strange place,” Eloise said in a whisper as they walked away. “Are there no windows? Is everyone here over the age of seventy?”

“I’m sorry. Grandfather asked me to look in. I’m eligible to join, you know. It’s hereditary.”

“No, you don’t. I feel like I’ve aged a year or two since I walked in just a few minutes ago.”

Carefully, they made their way to the front desk and asked for the bell captain. He was an elderly man who limped over to them and then led them out the front door, simpering along the way. When they were outside, Mr. and Mrs. Fielding, with the same impulse, took a deep breath of the clear evening air. The bell captain was in the street whistling for a cab. Fielding followed him, stepping off the curb.

“No, no sir. Best stand on street. Last month a man stand down in road and taxi roll right over his foot. It break every bone in his foot. Hee, hee, hee,”

A moment later a taxi was at the curb. Fielding tipped the bell captain a dollar and entered the far side of the taxi while his wife was helped into the other side. The taxi pulled away. They drove on in silence for a while.

“What a strange little man. The bell captain. Did you notice, he wore a patch over one eye? And he had a limp.”

“Yes, I did.”

The taxi headed across town. After a few minutes Eloise spoke up. “You’re very quiet, dear. Are you thinking about something?”

“Yes, I am. I’m thinking.”

“About what, dear?”

Fielding looked out the window, then turned back to his wife.

“I was wondering if…”

“Yes, dear?”

“I was wondering how you would feel if we didn’t go to Bucharest for our honeymoon. How would you feel if we went to Venice instead? It’s really nice this time of year and drifting along the canals in one of those gondolas is said to be very romantic.”  (c) Fredric Neuman  Follow Dr. Neuman’s blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog