▶ “Sometimes on a Saturday,” my attempt to make Zanny cry
Sometimes a man has nothing better to do than sigh out some old sad story to a piano player at a bar. He’ll talk to me about a place he used to live, or a place he used to work, or a car he used to drive, or a woman he used to love. This fellow in particular doesn’t usually see much difference between the first three, and has never had interest in the last. He comes down to L’Ombre Bleu every Saturday telling the same tired old tale, hoping it’ll finally stumble into the right person’s ear.
The place is always some godforsaken desert in the middle of nowhere, and the job is always death. When he tells the story, he brushes over the death, like it’s inconsequential, like it doesn’t matter. The end of someone’s life is just another check in his pocket. There’s only one thing matters about the place, and that’s the lover he finds there. The lover is something special, someone you’d come to Paris hoping to find and end up losing your mind looking. He always stops when he gets to this part—stops talking, stops moving, stops breathing. The way he tells it, that frenchman could make your heart stop beating, cut it out and make you eat it, and you’d still love him. He’s got a million different monikers for him, but not a single real name, not unless you know anyone who’d call their son “Spook” or “Spy” or “Blue.” It doesn’t seem to matter. It doesn’t seem you could fit all of him in one name.
Sometimes, he’ll explain, a man had nothing better to do than take another job on his week off, a job where death is nothing to be brushed over. Every time, he’d spend the weekend with his lover, and he’d live for the rest of the week on nothing but cold coffee, stale jerky, and the words that were whispered in that bed. The words were his favourite part, to hear him tell it—not the sex, not the warmth, not the shows the other man would put on for him. The words. They were what let him know that he was handsome, that he was interesting, that he was good in bed. They were what assured him that he was fantastic at his job, that he was a professional, that he was not a monster. Once, they even convinced him that he was truly loved, and that was a difficult notion to shake. The words were what got him through the week alone, when he took an outside job—except for the one time they fought.
He describes the argument as silly, but he never laughs. Something about going out to a fancy dinner, how they couldn’t do it because they’d be recognized. The lover, the shadow of a thousand names, didn’t seem to care, but the professional, the sad Australian sack leaning against my piano with the weight of too many years—he cared a great deal. What if they’d been caught? What then? He always asks me the question, but he’s forgotten the answer, the others he knew long ago who paid the price. All he remembers is the fight, that it was worse than the battle he had to face alone that week, with no Get Out of Death Free card.
The exact nature of that particular job has escaped him by now; it was always just about shooting folks and getting paid. This one, he remembers, was especially tough, because the target wore a mask. A dark suit and a dark mask, making a dark path down a dark alley and doubtlessly plotting some dark deeds. Since he didn’t have the usual comfort of his whispered words, he was antsy, impatient, unprofessional. He didn’t stop to think. He shakes when he tells this part. The bullet flew, the target dropped; the sniper collected his check and decided to apologize to his lover the next day. He didn’t stop to think, not once that late Friday drive home; it all seemed so simple.
They always met in the van on Saturdays. “My place or yours,” they would sometimes joke, but as far as he knew, the spy didn’t have a place. So the cramped little camper was Their Place, not Mine or Yours. Our Place, he still calls it.
He still doesn’t know why he didn’t find his lover in Our Place. He called out, he waited, he fumed. Once or twice he’s admitted to me that he cried. And then everything clicked in his mind. The dark suit, the dark mask, the dark deed, the dark day. He didn’t stop to think. To this day, he shakes when he tells me that he drove right back the way he’d come, to the place where he was suddenly certain he’d shot the only man whose life was worth a damn to him. It’s too easy to picture him stumbling out of the van, staggering into that dark, dusty alley, and shouting out every name he’s ever called his lover. I always have to stop playing at that point because I hate how the story ends. Not the ending that he tells me, but the real one.
The way he tells it, he went back to Our Place and found the ticket that time, a plane ticket to Paris with a note that said: “I found a restaurant where we won’t be recognized. Saturday, 7:30. Dress code: my usual outfit, but bring a name instead of a mask. That goes for both of us. A bientot.” He says there was an address scribbled on the back. I don’t have to ask him the street name or number. He is here every Saturday, without fail, in the same fading suit. Every week, he asks me a different name, though I know they all mean the same man. Every week, when I shake my head, he wonders if his lover meant next Saturday. He insists the man is alive, that he made it to Paris, that the target that night really was just some stranger.
I don’t know what to tell him. Not the truth. I can’t tell him that I didn’t see him the first time, or the second, or the third. I won’t tell him about the replacement they hired for him, because there’s little to tell, and I refuse to tell him about my old job, because then I’d have to tell him about the rest. I don’t even let him know that I’m the only one who can see him, because then he’d ask why no one else can, and it would all have to come out. Sure, I’d love to assure him that the masked man he killed was not his lover, but then I’d have to say how I know. I’d have to explain that stumbling screaming into a dark alley where you’ve just killed someone very important isn’t a very good idea. I’d have to point to the place on his temple where the first bullet went through, and then I know I would lose my composure.
Indeed, if I got that far, I’d start to tell him how long I’d waited that Saturday night, with my face uncovered for the first time in years and showing real hurt for the first time in decades. I’d admit that I hadn’t been able to eat the expensive food, that I’d come sulking back to base to find him nowhere. That I hadn’t even been able to find Our Place. I’d have to tell him that for years I thought he’d abandoned me because of that one silly fight, that after all the nights and whispered words I had meant nothing to him. And then, of course, I’d need to explain that I’d only come back to this place, this address, out of bitterness, intending to burn it down the day I quit my job, to remove every reminder of him from my life. I’d probably even own up to how much I cried when I saw him standing there that night, in the once-fancy restaurant that had been knocked down a couple notches to “bar,” wearing that stupid faded suit and asking everyone, to no avail, if they’d seen me. I almost thought he was a hallucination. That damned suit is so faded you can see right through it, but then, so is he.
I can’t tell him any of that. I can’t tell him that he’s dead and I’m not. I can’t tell him that he’s the one that doesn’t have a place now, and that mine is no longer in his van but right here, on the dusty piano bench. I can’t tell him that I’m the one he’s looking for, because if I tell him, he might go away forever, and as much as I hate the story, and how it ends, he’s still the one telling it. And now it’s me who wastes away alone all week, living on nothing but my lover’s whispered words and waiting for Saturday. I can’t live without him, so I tell him nothing.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
Even though he doesn’t know it’s me, doesn’t recognize me with all the years and without the mask, I did tell him one thing.
Every Saturday, when he comes walking straight through the thick double doors in the suit he must have been buried in, he looks me straight in the eyes, he smiles, and he calls me by my name.