Top Hat Uniformed men move in a dark choral mass at the foot of an iron tower under unlit lamps, their top hats squared, their shadowed faces anonymous and interchangeable. They suggest power without themselves possessing it, moving with ceremonial precision, otherwise silent, their secret motives concealed. They seem to want their walking sticks, carried like emblems of the elect, to speak for them.
Suddenly their decorum is shattered, as out of the vanishing point of the night a new figure emerges, strolling jauntily into their midst as though a door were being opened, light thrown, a die cast: they all fall back. At first glance, he might seem to be one of their own: he too wears top hat and tails, white tie, spats, carries a stick. But he is dressed like them and not like them: the top hat is tilted defiantly over one ear, the walking stick twirls like a vulgar unriddling of sacrament, his lapels are pulled back to show more of his snowy white breast by a hand flicking in and out of his pants pocket like a lizard's tongue. He is unmistakably (his face is lit up with an open disarming grin, he is a loner and extravagant and his grip is firm) an outsider here. And he means to offend.
The others close ranks behind him as though to seal a wound, watch him apprehensively. Perhaps he is one of them, as yet unformed. Is this possible? As though in reply, that frisky hand takes another dip, emerges this time with a scrap of paper: "I've just got an invitation through the mail," he crows, wagging the paper about like a press release. They lean on their sticks, studying this strutting intruder: perhaps they find heresy momentarily fascinating. Perhaps this is a weakness. "Your presence requested this evening, it's formal, top hat, white tie, and tails!" He has been slapping the paper with his walking stick as though it were a sales pitch, a sermon, a writ, but now he wads it up and impiously -- the men behind him stiffen, their walking sticks gripped tightly between their legs -- tosses it away. Credentials? Hey, who needs them? He twirls his stick and swaggers up and down in front of them, grinningly mocking their vestments, their rituals, their very raison d'être, as the natives might say. "And I trust you'll excuse my dust when I step on the gas!" he laughs, beating back their tentative lockstep challenge with a cocky, limbs-akimbo reply of his own.
There is an indignant bang of walking sticks, bringing him to a halt. He hesitates, then shrugs as though to say, oh well, when in Rome (if that's where he is), even if they're crazy -- and (maybe, deep down, this is what he truly wants, it's not much fun being a loner in this world, after all, even if you are number one) joins the others in a formal strut. But not for long. He just doesn't fit in somehow. They turn away, perhaps to lead him back where he came from, but he's in no mood to go home yet. Not like this. He follows them for a step or two, but then, as though overcoming temptation (all social forms are conspiracies in the end, are they not?), breaks away and, shoulders bobbing and hips swiveling, lets them know who he really is. He drums it out loud and clear with stick, heels, and toes, all four limbs rapping away at once, then plants the walking stick as though claiming turf. They watch impassively, their own sticks discreetly concealed. He restates his dissent, even more emphatically, elbows out and pumping as though he might be trying to take off,
He pauses. Has he won his case? He looks back over his shoulder. No, they are not even impressed. They repeat his sequence, but staidly and en masse. It's a kind of reprimand: the movement is possible, technically anyway, but unbridled egoism is not. He insists, throwing himself into ever more unorthodox convulsions, his walking stick flicking around his head like a cracked whip. He is incorrigible. A barbarian, a peacock. He does not even seem completely white. They leave him. Or maybe I somehow wished them away, reversed them out of my life like a rejected fairytale, a shabby dream, just as, for all I knew, I might well have wished them here in the first place. I was far from home; anything seemed possible. Certainly they vanished like shadows, leaving these strange streets bathed in a fresh light that lifted my spirits. I knew time was passing because I could hear my hands and feet tick-tocking away below, but the sensation I had was of a languorous serenity, a delicious pause between clocked anxieties. My life was changing, but for a moment it was standing still.
I may have got carried away a bit by the sheer enchantment of it, for, alone now, I could feel my body shed its weight suddenly and burst into an almost uncontrollable spasm of hip-twisting exuberance. Perhaps I meant it as an affront: their tails hung down, mine had to fly! Even as I dutifully planted my walking stick, my feet -- I seemed to have at least four of them, all rattling at once -- kicked it away. The stick took on a life of its own, whirling me giddily round and round as it whipped at the hard ground, sliced the air. I'd never known anything quite like it. I felt like I was about to blow my doggone hat off.
I knew that I had come to this place to change my life. Or that, somehow, because my life had to change, I had come to this place. The invitation seemed to suggest this: it was a special occasion. But, even as I found myself suddenly spinning dizzily around my rooted walking stick, I could not imagine what the nature of that change could be. Perhaps it had to do with the old men (I seemed to remember old men), or perhaps with the place itself, a place that seemed to be there and not to be there at the same time, like an unwritten melody, more an aura than a place, barren and seductive and overhung with melancholic storm clouds. And growing ominously dark . . .
Wait! I stopped, staggered drunkenly, spread my legs to keep from falling. What place was this? What exactly was I doing here? I tucked my elbows in. I'd taken that invitation for granted: but who had sent it? I couldn't remember. Perhaps I'd never known. I looked up at the louring sky, gripping my walking stick with both hands, feeling bereft, forgotten. Yet liking the feel of the stick. The streetlamps had come on. And under them, a girl stood. "I suppose," she said, staring at my feet, which were, though I had little to do with it, still on the move, "it's some kind of affliction."
"Yes, yes," I stammered, "it's -- it's an affliction. . ." I lowered my walking stick. Her caustic twang, so far from home, had startled me. She had genuine melting-pot lard in her cheeks and hips, her negligee was swank, but it was also vulgar, straight off Main Street, and she had the crusty don't-number-two-me worldliness of the girl-next-door. I felt I had seen her somewhere before. I began to perceive the nature of my trial. I was in a foreign place. The light was bad but I could see plain enough this guy was not one of the locals. The fancy duds were right but they fit him funny, like he was growing into them and out of them at the same time. He was playing with that swagger stick of his like he was trying to jerk it off, and I had the impression from the way he gaped at me that about all he could register for the moment was two tits and a tongue. Right away he starts mooning about his nursies, by which I supposed he meant his old lady, this John being strictly backwater, soup and fish notwithstanding -- I mean, he had some pretty fancy moves, but all that nimble-footedness looked to me like something he mighta learned tippytoeing through the cowshit. It was my guess that the nearest he'd had to a nursemaid was some old Gran out on the prairie who'd spooned him baked squash, rhubarb pie, and get-up-and-go marketplace fairytales, but bull's wool or no, the message was clear: this guy wanted his mommy.
The weird thing was how he couldn't stop jiggering about. It was like somebody had wound him up, then thrown away the key. Was it those old guys up in the balcony? I'd come on him spinning round and round his planted stick like he was in love with it. His dick, sure, I thought, but more than that: it was like some hole in the middle that he could circle round all day but never get inside of, and it was driving him crazy. "I'm free, that's me," he was hollering, and it was scaring him spitless. When he finally tucked his stick back in his clothes, he was staggering so he could hardly stand up -- yet his feet kept ticky-tocking away under him like he had the St. Vitus dance or something. So I spoke up. I said I supposed it was some kind of affliction, and he said it was and in fact he really shouldn't be left alone. I could see that, and suggested a couple of guards. I had to admit there was something attractive about him, though, in spite of his being a wanker and a loony. Maybe I was just homesick. Or tired of trying to get by in these hard times as a rich dressmaker's whore: there's a side to this kind of glamour that most people don't see. And it ain't the front side. Whatever the reason, when he launched into a little birds-and-bees number about "a clumsy cloud and a fluffy little cloud" (was he kidding? maybe all he'd had to shag till now were sheep. . .), I found myself thinking, oh well, what the hell, though I don't know the yokel from Adam, I just might let him scud up to a pap if it'd make him feel any better. If only he'd stop weewawing around like that.
And that was when these guys showed up.
Don't ask me who they were. I'm not even sure what they were. They came rising up out of the ground like from you-know-where. And you could tell these greasers meant business. Fluffy little clouds, my fanny, I thought, that boy shoulda stayed home on the farm! He looked like he was about to poop marbles, hunkered down there with his willow between his legs and his hat squashing his big ears out. Even his twitchy feet had gone dead on him. I figured the rube was done for and was just starting to feel sorry for him, when whaddaya know! he suddenly rears up, turns that little white-tipped stick of his into some kind of magical popgun, and starts mowing down the lot of them! Rappy-tappy-tap, down they go, blood and brains blowing everywhere, it's a fantastic rub-out! Hey, I thought, this guy is good! They return as they left: as though compelled. Arising like plants from the soil. Have they been called back because of the girl? To present her perhaps with a moral alternative? Or to recall him to the world of men? They bring with them, certainly, the aura of purpose, of culture, law, of subjection of the will to the greater beauty of the whole, but this aura rests upon them more like an affliction than a promise. Or perhaps it's just those preposterous squared-off hats.
They pause, standing in a row like soldiers at ease, their walking sticks planted between their legs, their white-gloved hands clasped at the heads as though protecting their genitals. Or pointing to them. They seem ready to serve, yet uncertain as to the nature of their service. Is he to join their ranks? Is she to embellish them? Or are they mere witnesses to a drama from which they are -- ontologically, as it were -- excluded? He provides an answer of sorts: he raises his walking stick and, pointing it like a fairground rifle, shoots one of their number: p-tang!The man crumples and falls, clutching at the sky.
Nothing changes. And everything changes. The outsider, it seems, is here to kill. And they, his hosts, are here to die. Possessed suddenly of an amazing and exemplary grace, he executes them one by one, but after the first surprise, there is no other: p-tang! p-tang! -- down they go, grabbing at their breasts, their faces, reaching desperately for the darkening sky.
The girl meanwhile is falling madly in love -- or perhaps is at last being rejoined with her true love -- her face lit up now with a kind of mystical ecstasy. She falls into step with him, moving in adoring concert, yet never touching, discovering -- or rediscovering -- an essential affinity, a zest for life and art -- p-tang! p-tang! -- innately shared. He fires from over his head, drops them two at a time from the hip, even lifts his leg and shoots from under it, as though to deepen the humiliation of their ineluctable and spellbound deaths. She moves among the victims, her heels rapping out a pitter-patter of termination, flouncing her skirts like the dropping of final curtains.
He knocks another one down, shooting blindly over his shoulder, then, holding the stick at his belly -- ruckety-tackety-tuckety-tack! -- impatiently machine-guns the lot. The dying men whirl and writhe, blood jetting from their bodies like the release of some inner effervescence. Their executioner, grown tall, staggers momentarily as though drunk with pleasure, turns wide-eyed toward the girl. She draws near to complete their final figure, which would seem, by the expression on her face, to be nothing short of orgasm (perhaps it is already overtaking her, as his arms reach out she is rolling to her back, her eyes closed, mouth agape) --
But wait! there's one still standing! This one seems smaller somehow, or else more remote, planted at the foot of the iron tower like a flaw in the visitor's own character, hands clasped soberly at the head of his stick. The visitor drops the girl (she gasps, grabbing herself as she falls), draws himself erect, and, his boyish grin frozen on his face, fires: the man leans to one side, ducking the shot, and says: "I know what you're trying to do, my friend, and I don't want to take the wind out of your sails, but perhaps, in your pursuit of untrammeled happiness, you have been a little imprudent. For there are dates that cannot be broken, and words, you know, that cannot be spoken. This is more than a clash of taste, a bit of a tiff. You are seeking, through murder --"
His executioner, sweating now though still grinning widely, teeth clamped in what is either manly determination or unbridled terror (the girl, groaning, convulses ambivalently at his feet), fires again: the man calmly leans the other way and continues, "You are seeking, as I say, through murder, to overcome that ambivalence at the heart of your quest, but what you are killing is merely something in yourself. Indeed, it is unlikely that, when the killing is done, there can possibly be anything left. You cannot celebrate, my friend, what does not exist. There is no Adam, for all your wishful thinking, and there never was; those treacherous brothers just made that up to account for their discontent. Yours is a grave misapprehension, with consequences far beyond your hasty actions here. Believe me, a few technical skills, gutsiness, and a silly smile will not resolve --"
Enraged, the newcomer bounces his swagger stick off the street and, as though to argue the case for personal ingenuity and pluck (it's not just technology, blast it, it's a whole new spirit --!), grabs it on the rebound and raises it like an Indian's bow. "Wait!" cries the man at the foot of the tower. The overhanging globes are so aligned as to seem to be pointing to his chest. "Hear me out!" The girl can be seen crawling away into the shadows in her glossy negligee, perhaps to sleep awhile, and dream. "I admit your instincts are sound, but your methods are ingenuous! It's not whose hats, but who's --!" His opponent draws the bow -- or seems to: there is a mystery about the arrow -- and lets it go. There is a crack like a rifle shot, the man at the tower cries out: "No, no, damn it! SHOOT THE OLD ME-E-E-e-ennn --!" and, flinging an arm in the air, crumples, his face falling into shadows.
The intruder is alone now on the street, except for all the bodies, those bitten apples, heaped about like cairns, like gates for a dance routine. The night has deepened. He tucks the stick under his arm, straightens his white tie, brushes off his tails, as though recollecting an old code. He looks at his feet: they are quiet at last. He grins at this, and shrugs, waggles his hips. In the heavy silence (he will never, never change), he doffs his hat and takes his spidery bow. You Must Remember This It is dark in Rick's apartment. Black leader dark, heavy and abstract, silent but for a faint hoarse crackle like a voiceless plaint, and brief as sleep. Then Rick opens the door and the light from the hall scissors in like a bellboy to open up space, deposit surfaces (there is a figure in the room), harbinger event (it is Ilsa). Rick follows, too preoccupied to notice: his café is closed, people have been shot, he has troubles. But then, with a stroke, he lights a small lamp (such a glow! the shadows retreat, everything retreats: where are the walls?) and there she is, facing him, holding open the drapery at the far window like the front of a nightgown, the light flickering upon her white but determined face like static. Rick pauses for a moment in astonishment. Ilsa lets the drapery and its implications drop, takes a step forward into the strangely fretted light, her eyes searching his.
"How did you get in?" he asks, though this is probably not the question on his mind.
"The stairs from the street."
This answer seems to please him. He knows how vulnerable he is, after all, it's the way he lives -- his doors are open, his head is bare, his tuxedo jacket is snowy white -- that's not important. What matters is that by such a reply a kind of destiny is being fulfilled. Sam has a song about it. "I told you this morning you'd come around," he says, curling his lips as if to advertise his appetite for punishment, "but this is a little ahead of schedule." She faces him squarely, broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, a sash around her waist like a gun belt, something shiny in her tensed left hand. He raises both his own as if to show they are empty: "Well, won't you sit down?"
His offer, whether in mockery or no, releases her. Her shoulders dip in relief, her breasts; she sweeps forward (it is only a small purse she is carrying: a toothbrush perhaps, cosmetics, her hotel key), her face softening: "Richard!" He starts back in alarm, hands moving to his hips. "I had to see you!"
"So you use Richard again!" His snarling retreat throws up a barrier between them. She stops. He pushes his hands into his pockets as though to reach for the right riposte: "We're back in Paris!"
That probably wasn't it. Their song seems to be leaking into the room from somewhere out in the night, or perhaps it has been there all the time -- Sam maybe, down in the darkened bar, sending out soft percussive warnings in the manner of his African race: "Think twice, boss. Hearts fulla passion, you c'n rely. Jealousy, boss, an' hate. Le's go fishin'. Sam."
"Please!" she begs, staring at him intently, but he remains unmoved:
"Your unexpected visit isn't connected by any chance with the letters of transit?" He ducks his head, his upper lip swelling with bitterness and hurt. "It seems as long as I have those letters, I'll never be lonely."
Yet, needless to say, he will always be lonely -- in fact, this is the confession ("You can ask any price you want," she is saying) only half-concealed in his muttered subjoinder: Rick Blaine is a loner, born and bred. Pity him. There is this lingering, almost primal image of him, sitting alone at a chessboard in his white tuxedo, smoking contemplatively in the midst of a raucous conniving crowd, a crowd he has himself assembled about him. He taps a pawn, moves a white knight, fondles a tall black queen while a sardonic smile plays on his lips. He seems to be toying, self-mockingly, with Fate itself, as indifferent toward Rick Blaine (never mind that he says -- as he does now, turning away from her -- that "I'm the only cause I'm interested in . . .") as toward the rest of the world. It's all shit, so who cares?
Ilsa is staring off into space, a space that a moment ago Rick filled. She seems to be thinking something out. The negotiations are going badly; perhaps it is this she is worried about. He has just refused her offer of "any price," ignored her ultimatum ("You must giff me those letters!"), sneered at her husband's heroism, and scoffed at the very cause that first brought them together in Paris. How could he do that? And now he has abruptly turned his back on her (does he think it was just sex? what has happened to him since then?) and walked away toward the balcony door, meaning, apparently, to turn her out. She takes a deep breath, presses her lips together, and, clutching her tiny purse with both hands, wheels about to pursue him: "Richard!" This has worked before, it works again: he turns to face her new approach: "We luffed each other once. . ." Her voice catches in her throat, tears come to her eyes. She is beautiful there in the slatted shadows, her hair loosening around her ears, eyes glittering, throat bare and vulnerable in the open V-neck of her ruffled blouse. She's a good dresser. Even that little purse she squeezes: so like the other one, so lovely, hidden away. She shakes her head slightly in wistful appeal: "If those days meant. . . anything at all to you. . ."
"I wouldn't bring up Paris if I were you," he says stonily. "It's poor salesmanship."