The students were lighting candles in the middle of Wenceslas when they left the hotel. The crowd was small, a fraction of the old rallies, but the police were out in force, patrolling the long street and pretending to ignore the students. No one wanted any trouble. From the candles Nick assumed it was a memorial service, but the signs they held up, in Czech, might have meant anything.
“I wonder what it says,” he said idly, looking at the quiet group. Behind them the street rose up to meet the giant columns of the National Museum, still scarred from the previous year’s shelling.
“‘Be with us. We are with you,”’ she said.
“You can read Czech?”
“No. It was the slogan. You used to see it everywhere. It’s their way of telling the police they’re all on the same side.”
Nick wondered what they expected the police to do — drop their guns and walk off the job? But it was all, from the incomprehensible signs to the sad, divided loyalties, someone else’s problem.
They walked down toward Narodni Street, past the parky stalls, then threaded their way through the narrow streets of the Old Town to the river. This was the tourist route, full of marvels and medieval towers, but Nick found himself hurrying, oblivious. The Charles Bridge, with its ornate statues, was full of couples looking down at the water, arms around each other, the girls all with bleached-blond hair that seemed to hang straight from poor chemicals. On the other side, the Mala Strana, there were thick arcades and cobblestones, lit by dull street lamps and the glow of passing trams.
The Wallenstein was not far from the river, and when they got there a crowd had already gathered on Letenska Street, waiting to get in. Most of them wore coats against the spring chill, and Nick saw that they had dressed up, men in ties, women in cloth hats. No one was young. The street door led through the honey-colored stone wall directly into the formal gardens. At one end of the central courtyard, musicians sat in front of the high arches of a portico, tuning instruments. Folding chairs had been set up on the pebbled ground, and people claimed them, first come, first served, then stood looking around for their friends, waving and chatting, just as they must have done when the palace was first built. Behind the walls, away from the tanks and the lines for carrots, Prague still had its evenings.
Nick found chairs toward the back, so he could look out over the crowd, and stood watching the people file in. What would he look like? Was it possible he wouldn’t recognize him? He would be how old now? In his sixties, like most of the audience. Gray? White?
“Don’t crane. It’s too obvious,” Molly said. “Maybe we’d better sit down.”
“No one else is.”
It was true. People stood talking, their voices rising over the violins and cellos being stretched into tune. Did they all know each other? A few people near them stared frankly at their Western clothes. Why so public a place? Why meet in front of an audience? The lights were being lowered now, people finally taking their places.
“What are we supposed to do, save seats?” Nick said.
“He just said he was coming to the concert. Don’t worry. He’ll find us.”
A couple sat down next to them and the man nodded at Nick, but it was just a concertgoer’s greeting, polite and vacant. The music started, a series of Mozart divertimenti, as formal and airy as the gardens. Only the portico was lighted now, and Nick looked around the dim courtyard at profiles and shapes of heads, waiting for someone to turn in the dark. How would his father find them? It was Nick who would have changed, no longer a boy. It occurred to him-a new thought-that his father would know him only because he was sitting with Molly.
At the intermission, while people smoked and drank beer, he stood near the bright stage, impossible to miss, but no one came up, and only a few people looked toward him at all, glancing at his shoes. Molly said nothing, but he could tell from the way she bit her lower lip that she was worried, that it should already have happened. Czech, fluent and guttural, surrounded them, making him feel isolated, not even free to eavesdrop.
When they sat down again, he knew his father wasn’t coming. Something had happened, or maybe he had balked, unable to go through with it after all. Nick stared at the Baroque walls, not hearing the music, and realized that he felt a kind of relief. It was better in so many ways to keep things as they were. His body began to sag a little, coming down to earth. The past wasn’t meant to come back. Except there it was again, the walking away. In the pretty courtyard, listening now to Brahms, he was at the back door again, being left.
“I’ll be right back,” he whispered to Molly, and when she looked alarmed he smiled and said, “Bathroom,” and slid out of his seat, crouching as he slipped farther back into the dark garden, trying not to crunch pebbles.
A long arcade led back to an ornamental pool, and he stopped for a cigarette near one of the pillars, away from the crowd. Phones were tapped. Maybe he had had to change plans at the last minute, to keep the secret. Who knew what his life was like now? Maybe he would be idling on Letenska Street when they came out, a chance meeting. And maybe not.
Nick went into the bathroom. Damn him, anyway. He wasn’t going to do it twice. Molly said he lived here; she’d spoken to him. What did it matter if Nick called? Who cared who listened? He was still taking precautions, and in America nobody even remembered his name. Old politics, all forgotten, as dated as a hemline. But his son was here. How could he not want to see him?
Nick came out into the soft light of the arcade and stopped. The man near the other end was walking carefully, as if he had forgotten his cane in his rush to get to the bathroom. No, not that old. The waves were gone, thinned to a dusting of hair across his scalp, and his body had thinned too, so that the suit hung loosely, the sleeves too wide for his wrists. He kept coming. Nick couldn’t move. There hadn’t been years to watch the change, just this one minute. An awful mirror. He was looking at himself old. This is what he would be like, bony, almost bald, shoulders slightly drooped. And the face. It was coming into the light now, as inevitable as a ghost. Paler than before, the skin still tight over the cheekbones, then a little slack, a gravity pull. His own face. But the eyes. The shine of liquid full to brimming over, catching all the light, so full Nick thought he might drown in them.
The voice seemed to touch the back of his neck like a shiver, drawing him nearer. Voices didn’t change. The same sound, wrapping around him, his earliest memory.
“Nicku. My God.”
And now the eyes did spill over, a wetness at the corners, as he raised his hands, putting them on Nick’s arms. Nick thought of the day they had left Washington, when his heart had literally hurt in his chest, a kind of practice death. He felt it now. Take a breath. He had wondered what it would feel like, this moment, and now he saw that it was like falling. His stomach was light; the ground had slid away. But his father had taken him in his arms. He could feel his cheek, the head leaning into his shoulder, the arms circling his back, holding on to him for dear life.
They sat by the ornamental pool in the dark, his father clutching Nick’s hand, holding down a balloon that threatened to get away. Without the light of the arcade there was only his voice, so that Nick slipped back into it, not distracted by having to see him.
“So tall,” his father said, his voice shaky, “so tall.” And then, patting his leg, he said simply, “You came.”
“I got your message.”
“So you knew. I wanted you to be sure it was me. I thought maybe that’s why you didn’t answer before. You couldn’t be sure.”
“Answer?” Nick said, lightheaded again.
“My letters.” His father paused. “I see. You never got them.”
“You wrote to me?”
“Of course. In the beginning. I should have known they would stop them,” he said, his voice suddenly older. “But I thought-never mind. You’re here. Look at you.” Touching him again.
Nick wondered if he could see in the dark; maybe just the shape of him was enough.
“Who stopped them?” Nick said. “Mother-”
“No, no. My friends.” An edge of sarcasm. “How is your mother?”
The question itself seemed absurd, as if everything that had happened to them could be reduced to a polite inquiry.
“She’s fine,” Nick said, at a loss. “She’s married.”
“Yes. To Larry. You took his name.”
Nick glanced up at him, trying to read his face in the faint light. “She thought it would be easier, I guess. You were — famous.”
“Famous,” he said, almost pouncing on the word. Then he edged away, conversational again. “But you didn’t have to be. Yes. I suppose I should be grateful to him. He’s been a good father to you?”
He nodded, then looked away, to his own thought. “Is she happy?” he said, but when Nick didn’t answer, he brought himself back and sighed. “Well, what a question. How do we talk? There’s so much-” He put his hand on Nick’s knee. “You came. You don’t know what it means. I thought, what if he never wants to see me again?”
“No,” Nick said.
“But I had to try. It was a chance.”
“And not before?” He stood up, looking toward the music. “I’m not sure. I suppose I thought you were better off. Maybe I was afraid you wouldn’t answer, like with the letters. But then, when I heard you were working with Wiseman-oh yes,” he said, answering Nick’s expression. “I keep up. I have your graduation picture.”
His father smiled. “So much information from America. They still work overtime at it, my friends. Like addicts. I thought, why not a little for me? Don’t they owe me that much? Of course, the newspapers I could see for myself at the institute. But the rest-” He paused. “I didn’t want to miss everything in your life.”
“Wait a minute.” A sudden anger. “You had people spy on me?”
His father shook his head. “No, no, nothing like that. Just what anyone would know. The public record.” He stopped. “Well, once. In the beginning. I was so desperate — I couldn’t bear it. So I asked someone at the institute. You know, it’s so easy. To arrange that. He brought me pictures. Hockey in Central Park. You were still a boy. Then I saw how crazy it was. How could I do that to you? It was my fault, all of it. I had to let go. So I made them stop.” He turned to him. “It was just that once.”
Nick stared up at him, not knowing what to say. In all the years, he had not once imagined what his father had felt. Now he saw, as in the science experiment, that if you just took a few steps to the side, the angle of the world was different.
“What else?” he said, curious.
His father shrugged. “It wasn’t much, Nick. A picture. A few clippings. I couldn’t watch you grow. Remember the height marks?”
Nick nodded. The notches on the side of the cabin door, measuring him every six months.
“It was like that. Just the marks. So I’d know how you were doing.”
His father was quiet for a minute, and Nick could hear the music rising in the background, almost at an end.
“So college and then the army and-” His father stopped, took a breath. “All the time, I thought, he doesn’t even know me anymore. Leave it-it’s over and done with. But then you went to London to work with Wiseman. Un-American activities. And I thought, it’s not over for him either. It’s time.”
“For what?” Nick said, standing up. “Why now?”
His father looked around, disconcerted, as if the question had come too soon, then turned to face him.
“Because I’m dying, Nick,” he said, his voice almost a whisper.
Nick stared at him, seeing now that what he had taken for age was really illness.
“No, don’t look like that,” his father said quickly, concerned. “It’s all right. I don’t say it to upset you. It’s just-a fact.” He paused. “So it has to be now.” He looked away from Nick’s gaze. “Please don’t. I know I’m a stranger to you. I didn’t ask you to come to-”
“Why did you, then?” Nick asked, unexpectedly bitter, his voice unsteady. “To say goodbye?”
“No. I wanted to see you, it’s true. Selfish. But there’s something else.” He reached up, putting his hands on Nick’s shoulders. “I want to put an end to that time. For both of us. I need you to help me.”
“Don’t you see? You’re the only one I can trust.”
Nick looked at him, amazed. In the distance, the applause began. “To do what?”
His father looked up at the sound of the clapping, the lights beginning to come on, and patted Nick’s hand. “Not here. We’ll talk. It’s a long story. We can’t start it here.” Then he held him by the arms again. “Tomorrow.”
But the lights seemed to bring with them a kind of urgency. There would never be time to catch his breath, sort out the noises that were a jumble in his mind. He watched me grow. He’s dying. Something’s worrying him. Was any of it real? He felt somehow that his father might rise up and float away, like the applause.
“Nick!” He heard her voice from the other end of the arcade, tentative, obviously looking for him, and he grabbed his father’s shoulder.
“One thing,” he said. “I have to know.”
His father looked at him, surprised at the strength of his grasp. “What?”
“Tell me the truth. The truth. Just to me. That night, when you left-did you go to the Mayflower?”
His father stared, assessing, then looked down, almost with a smile. “So you think that too. I thought I was the only one.” He looked back up. “No, I didn’t go there. Somebody else killed her.”
There it was, as simple as that. Nick felt empty with it gone, the relief of an aching limb finally removed.
“But you do think she was killed?”
“Nick.” Molly again, closer now.
“It’s all the same crime, you see,” his father said, leaning toward him, conspiratorial. “What happened to her. What happened to me. That’s why I need your help. I want to know. While I still have time.”
Before Nick could respond, Molly was with them. His father glanced at him, a flicker of the eye to signal an end to the conversation. But why shouldn’t she know? Secrecy became a reflex. Nick looked at her, waiting to see if she’d overheard, but the words, so loud to him, evidently hadn’t carried.
“There you are,” she said. Then, to his father, “Hello again.”
His father took her hand. “Thank you. For bringing him. I owe you a great debt.”
“I’m glad someone does,” she said cheerfully, refusing to be solemn. “You’ve had a visit?”
“A sighting,” his father said. He looked around at the people milling toward the garden door. “Tomorrow we’ll visit.”
“You’re going?” Nick said.
“But we’ve just-I’ll come back with you.”
“No, no. Tomorrow. The country.” He smiled at Nick’s urprise. “The weekend is sacred here. To stay home would be noticed. We leave our flat every Saturday at eight. Like clockwork. So we must keep the clock running.”
“You’re going away?” Nick said, incredulous.
“And you. Leave the hotel early, with your camera. There’s a lot to see in Prague. I can pick you up by the tram stop-”
“We have a car.”
His father smiled. “Rich Americans. I forgot. Even better. Two cars. You know the tank at the bottom of Holechova?” This to Molly, who nodded. “Eight-ten. It’s quite safe. They never follow us there.”
His voice, growing faint, ended in a small cough. Then the coughing came again, stronger, until he was forced to give in to it, partially doubling over to catch his breath.
He took a handkerchief out of his pocket to cover his mouth.
Nick leaned forward, peering at him. “What’s wrong?”
His father waved his hand dismissively, still catching his breath. Then he managed a smile. “Nothing. Overcome with emotion.”
He tossed it out casually, and in that second Nick heard his father again, young, unable to resist an ironic turn. But he looked drawn, shaken by the cough.
“It passes,” he said, and fumbled in his pocket for a small tin box, the kind used for pastille candies. When he opened it, the pills seemed enormous. “Soviet medicine,” he said wryly. “Not for the weak.”
“There’s some water in the men’s room,” Nick said, turning to get it. To his surprise, his father leaned on his arm and began walking with him.
“Just a moment,” his father said to Molly, attempting to be jaunty, but his voice was raspy now, and Nick wondered if it really was just a coughing spell.
In the men’s room, people were lined up at the urinals. Nick’s father went over to the washbasin, taking his time with the pill. He chased it down with water and stood quietly for a minute calming himself. A few men left.
“Better?” Nick said.
His father nodded. “What we talked about before? It’s better, I think, not to say anything.”
“To Molly, you mean. Why?” A man at the urinal glanced in their direction, surprised at the English, but Nick ignored him.
His father was nodding again, stifling the beginning of another cough. “Not yet. Not even her. Not until I’m sure. I’ll explain.”
“You all right?” Nick put his hand gently on his father’s back, afraid that a stronger pat would set him off again.
“You think it’s crazy, don’t you? Whispering in corners,” he said, his voice now in fact a whisper. “You’re not used to it.”
Nick looked around the room. The overhead vents might be hiding mikes, but why? Who would bother to bug the men’s room at the Wallenstein Palace? It occurred to him for the first time that his father, this man he didn’t know, might really be paranoid, common sense and skepticism worn down by the years to a membrane too thin to stop suspicion seeping through.
“Is it always like this?” Nick said.
“No. Sometimes they really are listening.”
Nick smiled, relieved. It was the kind of offhand joke his father would have made on 2nd Street, having a drink with his mother before they went out. A throwaway, not a story, and she’d be smiling, just happy to be with him. His father smiled now too, pleased with himself. But when he spoke, his voice was serious. “I don’t do it for myself,” he said, looking straight at Nick. Then another cough, his face crinkling up a little in pain, and he turned around to the basin so that Nick had to look at him in the mirror.
“What’s wrong with you?” Nick said, alarmed, frustrated at not knowing how to react.
In the mirror his father lowered his head, eyes dropping out of sight, and waved his hand again. “It’s all right. You go. Please. I’ll be fine. Tomorrow. By the tank.”
But Nick wouldn’t let go. He took the back of his father’s shoulders, turning him. “It’s not all right. You’re sick.”
The man at the urinal had zipped and now came over, saying something in Czech. His father answered quickly, the sound of Czech surprising Nick.
“He thinks you’re molesting me,” his father said, his head still down, trying again for a wry joke. “You’d better go.”
“Tell me what’s wrong.” Nick still held him by the shoulders, but when his father lifted his face Nick let go, stung by the look of dismay.
“It doesn’t matter. Just a side effect. Please,” his father said quietly. “I don’t want you to see me like this.”
Nick looked down in confusion and saw the stain. His father had wet himself. When he looked back up, his father’s eyes were moist with embarrassment. “It’s all right,” Nick said, words to a child.
But his father shook his head. “No. Now you’ll always think of me this way.” He looked up, his eyes a kind of odd plea, past all the jokes. “I can’t make it up to you. I’m not expecting-” He stopped, his voice almost feverish. “But not this. Not some stranger with wet pants.”
Now it was Nick who reached out to him, bringing him close in the dingy men’s room, holding him, whispering into his ear so that no one could hear. “You’re not a stranger,” he said.
“He’s all right. He wants us to leave separately,” he said to Molly outside.
“He doesn’t look all right.”
“I know. He’s been sick.”
“You look a little shaky yourself,” she said, studying him.
He led her toward the last of the crowd funneling through the garden door.
“I can’t stand it,” she said. “What did he say? What did you talk about?”
He looked at her, unprepared. Why not tell her?
“He’s not just sick. He thinks he’s dying. That’s why he wanted to see me,” Nick said, surprised at how easily it came out. It had begun already, the convenient half-truths, covering tracks.
“Oh,” she said, deflated. Then, an afterthought, “I’m sorry. How do you feel?”
“Ask me later. Right now, I’m not sure.”
The street was a small eddy of Tatras and Skodas, loud motors and clunky headlights shining on the cobblestones. In the square a large crowd bundled in coats waited for late trams. Instinctively, Nick headed away, toward the bridge, where couples were still loitering by the statues.
“What else did he say?” Molly said. “I mean, why doesn’t he want anyone to know you’re here? What difference would it make?”
“Maybe he doesn’t want anybody to know he’s sick. You summon the family, it’s a land of tip-off. I don’t know.”
She shook her head. “There’s something else.” But when he stopped and looked down at the water, she let it go, sensing his reluctance.
“This is the way cities used to look,” he said. “Just enough light to see where you’re going.” A delayed thought from the walk over, when he had taken in the streets without ads and lighted shops, just corner lights like sconces and recesses that were really dark.
“Nick? What was it like, seeing him? Do you mind my asking?”
He turned to her. “It was easy. It was him.” He looked back at the mist gathering along the surface of the river. Soon everything would be covered, insubstantial. He glanced over his shoulder as if he could catch a last glimpse of his father on the streets twisting up to Hradcany, a proof he’d really been there. “All this time. For years- years — I thought he was, I don’t know, on the other side of the moon or something. But he’s been here. In an apartment.
“All you have to do is drive in, spend a few dollars. All this time.”
She put her hand on his arm. “He hasn’t always been here.”
“Moscow, then,” he said, a little annoyed. “What’s the difference? The point is, he’s been somewhere. I could have seen him. They stamp a passport. That’s it. What did I think it was? Some fucking Checkpoint Charlie? I could have seen him, not waited until he was sick. So why didn’t I?”
She was quiet for a moment. “Nick, you’re not the one who left.”
Nick nodded. “I know.” He reached into his pocket for a cigarette and handed her one. “He wrote to me.”
“Wrote to you?” Her face was caught in the glare of the match.
“In the beginning. He says. Anyway, I never got them.” He lit his own and exhaled a long stream, looking back at the water. “It’s like I missed a train. And I don’t know why.”
She took his arm, leading him away from the railing. “Come on. You’re tired,” she said, her voice familiar, as if they were already a couple. “Maybe this wasn’t as easy as you thought.”
Karlova fed into the Old Town Square, where the clock was ringing to nearly deserted streets. There were no cars; the town had reverted to its medieval life. He could hear the click of her heels. Like him, the city was brooding and quiet, slipping back into its own past.
They were on one of the side streets that led toward the lights of Wenceslas when they heard the whistle, an urgent shriek of authority, and the clomp of boots, the sounds of a dozen war movies. Two figures were racing toward them, chased by a group of uniforms. Shouts, indistinguishable words, a Gestapo bark, and then the whistle again, flying toward them like a pointed finger. Nick froze. The sound of fear, always directed at you, so that even when it was merely overheard, you felt caught too. Here, in the foreign street, it had the anxious confusion of a bad dream-it was coming to get you. Shoes cracked against the pavement.
Before the men were halfway down the street, he felt a yank, Molly pulling him into the dark shadow of a doorway. She put her arms around his neck, drawing him to her, and the figures at his back became lost, just a background sound rushing past while they pretended to be lovers. No one stopped. He heard the boots, more shouts, all of his senses alive now with the adrenalin release of the whistle. Her breath was on the side of his face and suddenly he smelled her-skin, not perfume-and felt her against him, a touch as loud and surprising as the whistle. He kissed her almost by reflex, not thinking about it, and the kiss was surprising too, immediate and natural, like the smell of her, so that when he pulled back to look at her he seemed puzzled, not sure how it had happened.
“I thought you’d never ask,” she said, her voice low in her throat, as if they were still hiding from the police.
He leaned into her again, and this time the kiss was sexual. Her mouth opened to him and he could feel his body react, another reflex, unwilled. He moved his hands behind her, low, and she let him pull the curve of her closer, until she was pressed against him, warm beneath her clothes. She drew a breath, a swimmer’s gulp, before his mouth was on her again, pressing now, the kiss itself a kind of entry. She gave in to it, her mouth rubbing against his, then pushed away, putting her hands on his shoulders.
“No, don’t,” she said, a whisper, still catching her breath.
“So did I.” She shook her head, then looked up at him. “It’s different.”
He said nothing, the silence an open question.
“You have other things on your mind.”
“Not now, I don’t.”
She smiled a little, then put her hand on the side of his face. “Yes, you do. No complications, remember?”
“It doesn’t have to be complicated,” he said, moving closer, but she held him away.
“It will be, though. I’m not as easy as you think, either.”
He stared at her, then dropped his hands.
“Come on,” she said, moving into the street. “The police must be breaking up the demonstration. We don’t want to get caught in that.”
“Sorry,” he said, embarrassed to hear the sulk in his voice.
She turned. “No, don’t. It’s not that. It’s just not right. Not now.”
“Is that a rain check?”
“I guess.” She looked up, biting her lip. “But things never work that way, do they?”
They walked without touching, keeping a space between them, but when they reached the long sweep of Wenceslas, alive with lights and patrolling soldiers, she took his hand again, slipping them back into their roles. The students with candles were bunched near the mounted statue, surrounded by police, who appeared to be moving them off one by one. The chase in the alley must have started this way, a sullen resistance that broke ranks, an unexpected scuffle. Now things moved with a ritual formality. No trouble. Several of the students were holding up an enlarged photograph on a poster.
“Jan Palach,” she said, nodding at the picture. “It must be a memorial service.” He looked at her quizzically, reluctant to speak English now that there were people around. She was moving them away from the top of the street, skirting the crowd to skip across unnoticed. “He set himself on fire in January, to protest the invasion.”
Nick stopped, appalled. “Like the Buddhist monks,” he said, seeing the image before him, the shaved head and saffron robes in flames, the black gasoline smoke. But that was in another world, tropical and alien, not fairy-tale Europe where people listened to Mozart in gardens. “Christ,” he said, his voice a mixture of awe and scorn. “And it didn’t change a thing.”
There were shouts in the square as they reached the hotel and they ducked in quickly, finally safe in the cocoon of art nouveau woodwork and faded chairs. The usual newspaper readers had thinned out so that the few still there glanced up at once, on the alert. Molly took his arm, the clinging fiancee, and there it was again, the jarring feel of her.
“Pan Warren,” the desk clerk said, handing him the key. “You had a pleasant evening? It was not too cold for the concert?”
Nick took the key, feeling somehow watched. But of course he had arranged for the tickets. It was nothing more than the oily smoothness of a concierge with too few clients. “No. The music was wonderful.”
“Yes, it’s good, the Wallenstein. I’m sorry for the disturbance,” he said, his eyes indicating the protest outside. “It is too bad. Perhaps a drink in the bar? Our Pilsner beer is excellent. It should not be too much longer.” He glanced at his watch, as if the demonstration too had a closing time. “A half-hour at most. There will be no problem with the sleeping.” He was smiling. A weary familiarity with protests, or some more practical arrangement with the police? Business went on. Jan Palach had become an excuse for a nightcap.
“I don’t think so,” Nick said. “It’s late. Oh, I’ll need my car in the morning.”
His question took Nick by surprise. He hadn’t expected to explain himself. But why couldn’t it be just a bland inquiry?
“We wanted to see Karlovy Vary,” Molly said quickly, leaning into him. “Is it too far?”
“Karlovy Vary. Yes, very beautiful. Far, but you can do it.” He looked at them hesitantly, then brought out a tourist map and marked it with his pen. “For the benzin,” he explained. “You can fill there. It’s sometimes difficult in the countryside. I’m sorry,” he said, spreading his hands, an apology for the country itself, short of fuel.
Molly was leaning over the map. Her body was still close to his, and when she leaned back she brushed against him and he felt it again, the heat on her skin. If he reached down, he could run his hand along the curve of her hip. Instead he saw them in bed, her figure turned over onto itself, away from him.
“Well, maybe one drink,” he said, nodding to the desk clerk and drawing her away to the bar.
“What was that all about?” he said as they walked.
“His brother probably owns the gas station.”
“No, Karlovy Vary,” he said carefully, trying to get it right. “Whatever the hell that is.”
“Karlsbad. It’s a spa. I couldn’t think of anything else, right on the spot.”
“You’re good at this.”
She glanced at him. “All women are,” she said lightly. “You learn to think fast. It’s just part of the game.”
“Like saying no when you mean yes?”
“Like saying no when you mean no. Do you really want a drink?”
“No, but if we go to bed now we’ll start something.”
She stopped and touched his shoulder, smiling. “Try the plum brandy, then-you’ll pass right out.”
The bar was deserted except for a short gray-haired man at the end, chain-smoking and nursing a beer. Nick had become used to the furtive glances of Prague, but this one stared openly, frankly taking Molly in, a barroom appraisal. They ordered Pilsners.
“I never know where I am with you,” Nick said, automatically lowering his voice so the words became a murmur in the room.
“That’s what you said you liked.”
“Well, you implied it. At the Bruces‘.”
“The Bruces‘? When was that, anyway? A year ago?”
She smiled. “At least.”
“And you had that dress.” He took a sip of beer, then put it back slowly on the coaster. “We didn’t go to bed that night either. You had a message to deliver.”
“But now we’re here. End of message.” He reached over and ran his finger along hers, barely touching, but she moved it away.
“Let’s not start this, okay? It was just a kiss.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“Oh, how would you know?” she said suddenly. “Has it occurred to you, you’ve had kind of an emotional day? You’re all-I don’t know. Excited. I want it to be me. Not like this. When it’s just us.”
He looked at her, surprised. Her mood seemed to come out of nowhere, a shift in the wind. “Okay,” he said quietly. He brought his hand back, but she stopped it, covering it with her own.
“Look,” she said, “when I started this, I didn’t know it was going to be you. Who you are, I mean.”
“Who I am,” he echoed, not following her.
But now she backed away, almost tossing her head to clear the air. “I want this to be over. God, I hate being here.” Then, hearing herself, she turned to her beer.
“Everybody watching. Everybody not watching. You can’t breathe. Politics,” she said, almost spitting the P.
Nick said nothing, waiting for the calm to return, a cartoon husband, lying low. “How about him?” he said finally, trying to change the subject. “He doesn’t look very political.”
“Is he watching us?” she said, not looking up.
“Well, he’s watching you,” Nick said.
She turned and the man held her gaze, studying her face as if he were trying to place her.
“You’re right,” she said, moving back to Nick. “That’s not politics. He doesn’t even pretend not to look. Men. I suppose it must work sometimes or they wouldn’t keep doing it.”
“Well, you try.”
She smiled, the squall gone. “Good luck,” she said, taking in the empty bar. She stood. “I’m going up. No, it’s all right.” She put her hand on his shoulder. “Finish your beer. I’d rather pass out with a good long soak.” She stopped, hesitating. “Look, don’t mind me. I’m just nervous, I guess. About tomorrow.”
But she ignored the question and leaned over. “Don’t talk to strangers,” she said playfully, glancing again at the gray-haired man. “You never know.”
He turned on his stool, watching her leave.
At first Nick thought it was a foreign phrase, a bar order, but the voice was unmistakably New York, and he turned back to see the gray-haired man smiling at him. Nick shrugged, a universal non-answer.
“Better give in,” the man said. “No matter what it is. That’s the way it works.” He got off his stool, moving unsteadily, and it occurred to Nick that the man was drunk, hazily eager for contact. Nick took another sip of beer, anxious now to finish. “You’re American,” the man said flatly, taking the next stool. Nick raised his eyebrows, a question. “The shoes,” the man said, nodding toward Nick’s feet. He extended his hand. “Marty Bielak. Where you from?”
“New York,” Nick said, and then, because some kind of response seemed called for, “You?”
“I’m from here.”
“You live here? I didn’t know there were any Americans here.”
“A few. Of course, we’re not Americans anymore.” He paused. “Except we are. They think we are.” He was drifting into his beer. “I came over in fifty-three. Long time ago.”
“You came here?”
He smiled a little at Nick’s confusion. “I’m a Communist.”
Nick looked at him more carefully. His eyes were shiny, but the words had been flat, without belligerence.
“You’re too young. You wouldn’t know about that. They were arresting everybody then. I didn’t want to go to jail, so I came here.” He said something in Czech to the bartender, who brought him another beer.
“What did you do?”
“Do,” he said, a kind of snort. “I voted for Wallace. You didn’t have to do anything. Just have a card, you know? The summer they killed the Rosenbergs I thought, that’s it.” He stared at Nick. “You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you? Anyway, it was all a long time ago.”
“You like it here?”
The man shrugged. “Same as anywhere. What was it like living there? You couldn’t take a piss without somebody reporting it. That’s what it was like there. You think I’m kidding? My wife got fired. She’d go to work, they’d have guys following her. It got to the point-” He stopped, taking another sip. “The hell with it. You’re too young. My daughter, she couldn’t wait to see it. Last year, when you could travel, she goes to the Bronx, to the old building, and it’s crawling with Schwartzes and she says no wonder you came. She thought we lived in a slum. But it wasn’t like that then. That’s not why.”
“So you never went back?”
“What’s to go back for? Last year-well, she went. I didn’t have money for all of us. Maybe someday. Anyway, it’s all different, isn’t it? I mean, they don’t even have the Giants anymore. What’s New York without the Giants?”
“What do you do here?” Nick said, intrigued now.
“Radio. I monitor the VOA broadcasts. Well, I did. But now I’m American again. You know, after last year. Even the old Reds. But that’ll change. We’re going through an adjustment now. You have to expect that.”
A believer’s rationale, still. Nick thought of the index cards in Wiseman’s study, all the facts of the witch-hunt, which had somehow overlooked Marty Bielak in a misplaced file. This is where some of them had ended up, perched on a barstool, stranded, like debris swept up on the beach by a storm.
“Can I ask you something?” Nick said impulsively. “Why did you? In the first place?”
“What, become a Red?” He looked back at his beer. “You think we have horns? Let me tell you, we didn’t. Who else was there? You think anybody cared about the working man? Anti-Semites playing golf. That’s what it was then. Anti-Semites playing golf.” He stared at the glass, then caught himself. “It’s the beer talking,” he said, trying an apologetic smile that stopped midway. “You ask me, you know what I’d have to say? Who else was there? That’s it.” He picked up the glass. “Anyway, here I am talking — it’s good, you know, the English-and you’ve got a pretty girl to go to. What are you doing here, anyway?”
“Just seeing the sights,” Nick said easily. The man nodded. “Not so many come now. Unless they have family. You have family here?”
“No.” He shook his head. “My grandmother was Polish, though,” he said, improvising. Molly was right. You could learn to do it fast, part of the other game.
“And that’s close enough,” Bielak said, laughing to himself. “You’d have to be American. They’re the only ones who think it’s the same thing.” He paused, then looked up at Nick. “Let me ask you, could you use a guide? I know this town inside out. I could use a little cash.” His voice, the brash sound of the Polo Grounds, had dropped an octave, suddenly older. Nick caught the embarrassed pleading in his eyes, still shiny with beer. “Dollars, if you have them. My sister, she still sends, but these days-I have the time.”
Nick looked at him. Not an index card. “I don’t think so. We’re only here a little while. Thanks, though.”
“Just see the castle and on your way. Okay. Don’t miss the Jewish cemetery-it’s the best thing. Sounds crazy, but it is. Well, think about it.” He reached for a pen, wrote a number on the coaster, and handed it to Nick. “If you change your mind, I can show you the stuff the tourists don’t see.” Nick heard his voice begin to slur. “A special tour. You want to see all the old Reds? That might be interesting,” he said, his voice suddenly sarcastic.
Nick stood up, putting the coaster in his pocket. “Night,” he said, almost a mumble. He threw some crowns on the bar, not bothering to count them. “Good luck.”
“Luck.” Marty Bielak winked. “We don’t need luck here. We have socialism.”
When he got to the room, Molly was still up, reading by one of the two dim bedside lamps. The flannel nightgown was back and her face glistened with cold cream, an almost comic body armor. The heavy drapes, drawn tight by the maid, still sealed the room, and he crossed to open them, hungry for air.
“What happened to you?” she said. “I was about to give up.” She closed the book and snapped off her light, leaving only the small glow by his side of the bed.
“You were wrong about that guy,” Nick said, opening the windows. “He’s an American. He lives here. It was your English.” He began unbuttoning his shirt, looking down at the street lamps.
“Lives here? You didn’t tell him anything, did you?”
“Oh, Nick,” she said in mock exasperation. “Who do you think hangs around the Alcron bar talking to foreigners?”
He stopped, his hand still on the button. “You think?” he said quietly.
“Who else could afford it?” When he didn’t answer, she turned over. “Goodnight.”
He continued staring out the window, not wanting to turn around. What if she was right? What was that like? He saw Marty Bielak writing up reports on tourist conversations, taking another step for the working man. Do you have family here? Did that make it easier? Maybe cadging dollars for a tour was worse, a seduction without even the self-respect of betrayal.
The protesters had gone, just as the desk clerk had predicted, leaving behind their candles. Now the police were clearing them away, tipping over the lights until the space under the good king was empty again, a patch of dark. He’d set himself on fire. How many ways are there to take away your life? A lost family, as irretrievable as childhood. A careless exile, eavesdropping in bars. At least Jan Palach had only done it to himself. But you always take somebody with you. There must have been parents, left with a martyrdom and an empty house. And sometimes somebody did it for you, flinging you out the window before you had a chance to hold on.
Molly moved in bed, and the sound carried to him, a disturbance in the air. It pricked at him, not letting him drift, and as he raised his hand to draw on the cigarette he suddenly saw her at the window in Bern, a reverse image. Maybe she had felt it then, the same disturbance, something right here, not some feint with ghosts. Now it was his turn. He thought about her in Durnstein, then down in the bar, and he saw that they kept colliding and moving on, like electrons. What if he made the same mistake as the others? Losing everything for an idea. He stood still. In the courtyard with his father, he had felt that his life had come back to him, but it was only a piece of the past that had come back. It was the side street that had been alive with an adrenalin touch. Maybe there was no idea. Maybe it was as simple as a rustling of bedclothes that wouldn’t leave you alone, a disturbance.
No more than that. So that if you didn’t hear, it came and then, like the luck Marty Bielak didn’t need, slipped away for good.