20

IT was the day of the imam’s weekly visit to the camp in the Libyan Fezzan, and, as always, he had brought with him the letter for The Prisoner that arrived each week at the embassy in Rome. Like all the others, the letter had travelled far, but swiftly, from a small town in New York state to a blind address in Paris, from there to the embassy, and then on to Tripoli in the diplomatic pouch. The Prisoner retreated to the privacy of the squad room, and held the letter in his hands for a while before opening it. It was his one link with the outside world, and his eyes noted all the familiar details. The cheap stationery, the American stamps, the Rockhill postmark, the return address in a spidery script: 29A Linden Avenue. The Prisoner pressed the envelope to his forehead, then to a spot over his heart, and only then did he slit the flap and open his weekly letter from Violet Simms.

Along with the letter, two newspaper clippings and a photograph fell from the envelope. He reached for the picture first, and stared long and hard at the daughter he had never seen in person. She was dressed for skiing, posing in front of a snow bank, and she was smiling at the camera, unaware that she was smiling for her father. He put the photograph aside to cherish later, and turned to the letter.

The weekly letters rarely varied in content, but he treated each one as if the others had never arrived. First there was news of Lila, and all seemed well. Good health, good grades, dances, parties, even a skiing trip won in some sort of a contest. All quite normal for the world in which she lived, and all quite different from the world of her father. No problems, at least for this week.

He read on. Mrs. Simms never failed to follow the form, always reporting on the required subjects. Nothing new to report about Mike Teague, living out his days in the Florida sunshine, frail and in constant need of medical attention, but still alive. Good old Mike, only a trainer on the team, but a surrogate father and any-time-of-the-night confidant to a Lebanese kid in a strange land with strange customs. Without Mike, it would have been hell. Without Mike, it would have been impossible. Hang in there, Mike, hang in there. He read further. No news about Calvin or June, but then there rarely was. What news could there be from the ruts of a marriage grown into a routine? Still, the marriage existed, and that was all he needed to know. Other news? Not much of anything. That world on the other side of the planet, the world in which he once had lived, seemed quite unruffled.

He picked up the newspaper clipping from the Albany Times-Union, and the headline jumped out at him. POLK DEFEATS VAN BUREN 78-62. Damn, a disappointment. For a while it had looked as if the Cavaliers might beat the Bulldogs and go on to the tournament. He allowed his memory to slip back to his own Van Buren days, the frenzy of the game nights, the stuffy gyms, the squeal of sneakers on hardwood, and once, only once, the indescribable thrill of trotting out onto the floor of Madison Square Garden, the blinding lights and the roar of thousands. He had made it, his team had made it, but it had not happened since to Van Buren, and now another chance was gone. He smiled at his emotions, knowing them to be a weakness, and put the clipping aside.

Fresh emotions washed over him as he read the second clipping. DIVA IN FAREWELL TOUR, read the headline in The New York Times, and the text of the story told of triumph after triumph as Maria-Teresa Bonfiglia bade adieu to her adoring public in cities across the country. San Francisco, Dallas, Cleveland, Chicago, and the final appearance only ten days away at Carnegie Hall in New York. He stared at the clipping, entranced, then put it aside and went to the phonograph. He selected a record, and stood with his hands clasped behind his back and his head sunk in thought as her incomparable voice filled the room singing the “Vissi d’arte.” He remembered the first time that he heard her sing it, and he remembered the times when she had sung it just for him.

“And now that voice will be stilled,” he murmured. “How sad. Memories, I will have only memories. How long can a man live on memories?”

No longer, he decided. It was time for him to go out into the world again, time for an end to his hegira, and he was amazed at how easily the decision was made.

Go, he told himself, go now. There is nothing to keep you here. Not the imam, not the committee in Beirut, not the men, not all the vows and promises made. I have given so much, and I have asked for so little in return. This I must have, and no one will dare to say no to me.

An hour later, dressed in western clothing and with money and papers in his pockets, he drew a vehicle from the motor pool and began the drive north to Tripoli. He was right. No one had dared to say no to him.

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