Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Approach to the City (4)

The pension recommended by the waitress was only two blocks away, down one of the little side streets that led off the square. The street -- alley might have been a better word -- was cobblestoned and curving, and his echoing footfalls were the only sound to be heard as he searched for the number he had been given. The building was narrow, two storeys high, with white curtains in the downstairs window and a lantern shining above a low stoop outside. He rapped tentatively with the knocker, waited a moment, then rapped again, firmly this time. He was about to give up and retreat to the tavern when he heard a door shut somewhere in the interior, followed a moment later by the sound of the lock being unlatched from within. The woman who opened the door -- just a few inches wide at first -- looked to be about thirty, he thought; she was tall and rather grave looking, her dark braided hair tied up in back, and he suspected he had interrupted her preparations for bed. He mumbled an apology and said he'd been told she had rooms to let and was that true? She said yes and beckoned him in.

The cramped lobby was dominated by a bird cage as tall as a man, in which a dozen yellow finches were hopping and chirping in agitation, whether at his presence or for reasons of their own he couldn't tell. There was no reception counter, just a little wooden writing desk with a ledger and a fountain pen and one caned chair with a man's valise resting on it. The wallpaper was cream-colored, in good order, and had some kind of faint floral pattern on it that was only noticeable on close inspection. "You're alone?," she asked, though it was quite evident that he was. "Any bags?" He hadn't. She seemed unconcerned at this; she entered his name and particulars in the ledger, told him that he could settle the bill in the morning and that breakfast began at seven.

"Will you be going out again?" she asked.

For a second the question struck him as a bit intrusive, but then he reflected that he might be her only lodger and that she might want to lock up for the night. He said that he wanted to mail some letters and asked if there was a postal box nearby. There was, she said, and indicated its location, which was in the square where he had eaten.

"I'll leave the street door open, then, and please be sure to lock it behind you when you return."

"Of course." She handed him the brass key to his room, which was on the third and uppermost floor; there was no tag or ring. As he climbed the winding stairs the birds suddenly became quiet and when he looked down he realized that the woman had drawn a shroud over their cage.

The room was small and low-ceilinged and it was stiflingly hot when he first went in, but as soon as he opened the window over the street the night air quickly made it bearable. The furnishings were spare -- a high and narrow single bed, a little desk with a straight-backed chair, and a little bureau with a potted plant -- but there was neither a stain nor a fleck of dust or cobweb anywhere; the adjoining water closet was also spotlessly clean. He hung his coat on a hook on the back of the door, looked out on the silent streetscape for a moment, then fished out the postcards and pen and sat down to write. It didn't take him long; he wrote three cards, each with nearly identical messages, then separated and licked the stamps and firmed them down with his thumb.

He left his coat in the room when he went down stairs; he didn't think he'd need it. The lobby was quiet and dark except for a single nightlight, and there was no sign of the pension-keeper. He stepped into the street and began to retrace his steps towards the square. The little tavern was still in operation -- there were lights on and he could see some patrons at the tables by the window -- but other than that the square was deserted and nearly all of the lights in the surrounding buildings had been extinguished. He dropped the cards in the box and was about to turn back when something caught his eye; there, at the far corner of the square, an animal sat on its haunches observing him alertly but, it seemed to him, neutrally as well. He thought at first that it might be a dog, but as he peered through the shadows he saw that its proportions were all wrong, its legs too spindly and long. He took a step or two in its direction; the coyote remained still at first, then rose and darted off in a single quick motion.

(To be continued)

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