Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Approach to the City (3)

He walked upriver along the promenade for a few blocks, until he came to the bottom of a broad street that wound steeply up through the city. A stout, gray-haired woman was selling newspapers and souvenirs from a little shaded kiosk on the corner; he fished some change from his pocket and bought some postcards, and then, on further reflection, a cheap ball-point pen and some stamps. The stamps were a light emerald green, and framed between their perforations was an engraving of the river, depicted, he thought, from not far from where they stood. He stowed his purchases in his coat pocket, nodded his thanks, and started up the hill.

The street was too steep for carts and omnibuses, which kept to the more gradual slopes on the edges of town, but not beyond the capabilities of a strong walker, which he was. Other pedestrians, young and old, were climbing with him, and a few as well were heading down towards the river, planting their feet firmly so as not too tumble headlong. The sun was directly on his shoulders now. In another hour, or perhaps a little more, it would light up the sky above the opposite shore with vermillion and then disappear for the night. The wind was blowing up the river and for the first time that day he felt a bit of a chill and was glad of the exertion. After a ten minutes' climb the street leveled off and opened into a compact little square surrounded by three-storey stone buildings decorated with iron railings and windowboxes full of geraniums. In the center of the square was a brick plaza encircling a lone, peeling sycamore. There was a bench beneath the branches and there he sat for a moment to catch his breath.

On the building opposite a purple-flowered vine -- he thought he knew its name but couldn't come up with it -- had been trained up the downspout of the gutters and then along the eaves. The door swung open, and as a couple in their twenties emerged he heard the clinking of dishware within. Talking it for an eatery of some sort -- he hadn't had a meal since morning and was feeling an increasingly thirst -- he got up and crossed to it and turned the knob of the heavy wooden door. He had not been mistaken; it was a kind of tavern, low-ceilinged and dusty but boisterous and busy. The smells wafting from the kitchen were promising; a passing waiter, towel slung over his shoulder, nodded and waved him into the interior. There were no private booths, just large common tables surrounded by wooden benches. As soon as he sat, exchanging nods with the group of three men sitting further along the table, a fortyish waitress in a dark skirt and blouse appeared with silverware and a placemat woven from some kind of stiff fiber, and asked him what he wanted. He hesitated for a second, realizing that there was no menu. The waitress indicated a blackboard beside the bar, and stood by patiently as he mulled over the limited options. He ordered a ham sandwich and a beer.

The three men were soon joined by two friends and then by a young woman whom he surmised was the wife or the girlfriend of one of the men who had just sat. They each gave him a nod; they seemed in high spirits -- though not drunk by any means -- but he knew little of their language and could make out only a smattering of broken phrases. The other tables were quickly filling up; over the jumble of conversation and the clinking of silverware and china the diners slowly raised their voices. When the waitress returned with the sandwich and a full glass he could barely make herself heard to thank her. She waved him off anyway as if it were nothing.

The sandwich was delicious, the ham tender, aromatic, roughly and thickly carved and enclosed by slices of an excellent, crusty sourdough. When he had drained his dark, bittersweet beer he ordered another and sat nursing it for a while. When he tired of watching the other patrons in the room he looked out through the windows, where the evening shadows were inching steadily across the square. Finally he stood, settled the bill, and asked the waitress if there were rooms to be had nearby. She mentioned an address, and when he hesitated gave him directions and said it wasn't far. He drew on his coat and went outside. There were lights on now in the buildings that ringed the square. Above them, looming on the hill above, rose the clock tower, illuminated by spotlights.

(To be continued)

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