By Paul Mirabile
“ … And do you think our present government is meeting the demands of its people ?” spouted the Spokesman Doctor, chairman of the Portuguese Communist Party Delegation in Nisa. Seated in a squalid, fly-laden café, he directed his poignant words towards a group of glassy-eyed villagers, seemingly rather perplexed at such a display of political pathos. He had been at it now for at least two hours.
A dusty gust of wind and shuffling of feet directed the villagers’ languid attention to the doorway. Long strips of coloured plastic peevishly scraped against one another. Someone stepped in : a young man, well-to-do, by his appearance, obviously not from Nisa. He side-stepped a dozing dwarf, making his way to the counter. All glassy eyes fell on the stranger.
“You never answer questions,” the Spokesman Doctor said, turning on the villagers coldly, although keeping a watchful eye on the stranger at the counter. “All of you, how long are you going to sit here swallowing insult and humiliation ? You can’t live on olives and bread alone. Look at our land … where are the tractors ? Where’s the money from America ?” There was no reply to those beseeching questions, only the slight chuckling of the stranger, who leaned gingerly at the bar sipping a coffee.
“You’d rather live then without running water and electricity ?” the Doctor spat out, staring hard at the stranger, who stared back at the Doctor even harder. “And still you don’t understand my questions.” One skinny, toothless fellow made some effort to amuse the Spokesman Doctor, but only succeeded in ordering another cup of coffee. The stranger broke into a wide grin. All eyes peered at him from yellow, sunken sockets. He broke the frosty silence by asking in the most delicious courtesy, but in the most atrocious Portuguese, for a glass of iced lemonade.
The unexpected appearance of this stranger brought whispered comments from the villagers. The Spokesman Doctor’s wiry face eyed the stranger with suspicion. He set aside his cup of coffee. A fly aimlessly found itself inside the sugar-coated rim of the cup where it remained until the Spokesman Doctor swished it disdainfully away.
“Are you Portuguese ?” he asked, rhetorically, with a slight accent of irony. The young man turned to him and answered in his choppy Portuguese that he was not, adding a few instants later that he was an American on visit to a friend whom he works with in France. This last phrase was declared in excellent French, something which surprised many of the villagers, most of whom had worked in France for years. The most astounded, however, was the Spokesman Doctor.
“So you have a friend in Nisa ?”
“Yes I do,” returned the American, catching a note of doubt in the Doctor’s authoritative tone.
“Who is this friend of yours ?”
“Domingo Flaco, but he’s still in France just now. I think he’s on his way, or at least he should be. I’m not certain ; he wrote me some time ago.”
“Do you still have the letter ?”
The American searched the Doctor’s tiny, black eyes, twitching nervously in their sockets.“No, am I supposed to have it ?” the other retorted dully.
The lanky American’s easy flow of speech and command of French relieved some of the villagers’ mistrustful thoughts, thoughts put there by the Doctor’s obsessional fear of alien spies in the mountain villages. Domingo’s name set the villagers at ease, but the Doctor remained on his guard, shifting irritably about the table, playing mindlessly with his empty cup of coffee. Another fly, finding itself helplessly stuck in the grounds of the coffee, the Doctor savagely crushed it with his thumb. He seemed to sense something foul ; something amiss, even insalubrious in this clean-cut American who spoke excellent French. Domingo indeed did live in Nisa, that was an undeniable fact. But what would an American be doing with Domingo … a poor mountain peasant who had immigrated to France, and there was presently working on a wine farm ? This relation had no logical link to it, or if it did, it completely escaped his wits. A well-to-do American visiting a peasant in the poverty of Portugal concealed a reason that his imagination could not fathom.
The Spokesman Doctor fell on his prey like a lion : “Does anyone know him ?” he asked the villagers in Portuguese. There followed a long pause. During that pause the American ordered another lemonade, quite unaware that he had become the topic of discussion. Nonchalantly he drained his glass, eyeing the assembly curiously. Again a jumble of words struck him oddly. The cold lemonade contrasted sharply with the heat that had been accumulating around him.
“Do you know this American ?” asked the Spokesman Doctor again, but this time addressing the veiny-face villager behind the counter.
“I think he does work with Domi,” he responded, wiping the counter for about the hundredth time which scattered the vexatious flies.
“No, I don’t think he does work with Domingo,” rallied the Doctor hurriedly. “I saw him handing out Jesus Christ leaflets yesterday. He was haranguing people for money. Then he went from bar to bar asking questions. Where’s your papers, American ?” The Doctor shot a fiery glance at the young man, who for one, was relieved that this man had finally spoken to him directly, and in French.
“What papers ?” he inquired. The Spokesman Doctor laughed haughtily. The others followed, but with more restraint. The Doctor now felt he had hit the nail on the head. His ‘people’ were with him, as always. “Come on, we want to see your papers. I saw you yesterday handing out Jesus Christ leaflets to people in the streets.”
The American wiped the sweat off his forehead, intrigued more by the use of ‘we’ than by the accusation. “What the hell are you talking about ?” replied the American, crimsoning under the glow of a dozen eyes.
“Are you a Communist ?” rifled the Doctor. The American nodded in the negative, taken aback by the bluntness of the question.
“Are you then a Capitalist ?” Again the same negative nod.
“Then you are nothing but an evangelizing parasite !” A pasty smile flitted across his lips. The American breathed deeply, moving a trembling finger across the counter. He couldn’t think of anything to say to defend himself ; all this seemed utter nonsense.
“Where are your papers ?” asked the Spokesman Doctor cloyingly.
“What in God’s name are you raving about, man ?” fired the American, stepping back, the enraged flies skirling about his red, sweaty face.
Again the Doctor smiled, slowly pushing his way towards the circle of villagers round the counter.
“Do you know about the CIA here in Portugal ?”
This question frightened the stranger. He brushed his flaky blond hair from his forehead, then threw the villagers a bewildering look. “Should l know about it ?” he retorted, involuntarily shifting his right foot towards the swaying, plastic strips of the doorway.
Suddenly a man shouted out coarsely : “No Doctor, he does work with Domi in France. I saw him there six months ago when I visited my cousin in Beaune.”
“No !” brayed the Spokesman Doctor vehemently. “I tell you I saw him yesterday handing out Jesus Christ leaflets. You know, there’s lots of those people in Portugal today, mostly Americans, too … you know, with the elections coming up … Look what happened before the last elections … the same thing, American agents running about the countryside posing as people of the Jesus Christ Movement.” This last statement was met by incredulous glances from the villagers. They all acknowledged the Doctor as a grand man, politically astute and well-read, but a doubt reigned over their blurry, uneducated minds. And yet, it was true: an American in Nisa posed a problem, and raised a mystery that none, at least in that hot and illiterate café, could unravel.
“You know a lot about many things, don’t you ?”enquired the Spokesman Doctor, ingratiatingly. This time the subject of conversation did not deign to reply. The Doctor scoffed at this show of pretense. “I don’t know American, but I saw you yesterday going from café to café with those dirty leaflets in your hands. There’s something about you I can’t understand. I know you speak excellent Portuguese, too.” With this ‘compliment’, if it may be considered as one, the American lifted an enigmatic eyebrow.
“There’s a lot of CIA activity in this area round election time,” continued the Doctor with his pasty smile. “Communism is very strong in our villages. Look around you … everything is falling apart in our villages. Americans are to blame for the poverty of our country.”
“Not Americans,” blared out the young man beside himself. “The …”
“No !” screamed the other louder than his rival. “I don’t want to listen to your sweet, poisoned words. Laughing, he turned away to speak quietly to his people.”
Many words darted in and round the savage, swirling flies, words which the American was at a loss to comprehend. He could have left, the way was clear to the door. But he remained adamant in his right to be in that café and drink coffee with the villagers. No proxy lout of a Communist courtier would eject him from that public place. Then a strange sensation crept up on him : everyone appeared to have come to some sort of resolution … verdict would be a better word … As if he had been accused of some crime. He saw the jury to his right … then the judge, to his left, a dark man, sporting a moustache with a horrible pasty smile.
“We have found the accused guilty,” came a hushed, indescribable voice. A wave of panic seized the accused.
“Guilty … guilty of what ?” The sad, sunken eyes of the jury hung suspended in the air. The flies, too, seemed to have adjourned their monotonous gyrating. The eyes of the judge were laughing at him, as a sickly moustache inched its black way into the left corner of his mouth.
— Has everyone gone crazy ? the American thought. –An innocent man has been falsely accused. Yes, something is very wrong here. How could this have happened ? I only came in for a cup of coffee ! Really I did … — These inner pleadings hammered at his temples, hot and pulsating. Was it real ? –To the doorway– were his next whispered words. –Must escape before they trap me in here.– The American rushed towards the doorway but scraping feet forced him to swing his shoulder to the left. –It’s not true … they’re on me. For what ? — A knotty fist shot out. He blocked it with his forearm. Then another which again he easily countered. –They’re all crazy … really crazy, — a tiny voice within him admonished.
He wanted to speak aloud but his voice found no chamber to echo his confused thoughts. Something cracked in his mouth; blood filled the spaces between his teeth. He stumbled back, catching hold of the counter. Turning, he faced his judge, and in an instant of crystal clarity he caught sight of a dull, metal object in his hairy hand. A flame tore through his belly. He grabbed at it … fingered it … found clots of blood smeared on it.
“What have you done ?” he managed to spit out in a flow of blood, his eyesight gradually fading into an empty space behind his head.
The American crumbled to his side, still conscious of his surroundings. A face slid across his sight, that of a moustached man, smiling a very pasty, wicked smile. A glibly voice nettled what remained of his pride. “That will be all for you,” said the pasty, wicked smile.
And it was true what that smile said. For the young man moaned aloud, then lay still. Everyone rose and left the café …
Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.