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I saw Sally Haven at the bullfight the day before she was killed. I was sitting alone in the Shade Section, wishing I hadn't come, wishing I could get Iris out of my mind. The shock of her leaving me was still crude. I felt exposed, as if anyone could look at me and know at a glance: There's a guy who's lost his wife.
I was sitting there and I saw Sally, that other girl who had become so important. Her bright yellow coat, slung over her shoulders, was like a patch of sunlight. She was walking after a Mexican with seat cushions balanced on his head. Close behind her strolled a young American with cropped red hair and the build of a wrestler. His gabardine suit was too tight across his shoulders and he wore a dark blue shirt and a red tie. He was the sort of man I imagined she would cultivate if she was in the sex market again, and I guessed she was.
She was paying him no attention, though. She kept looking from side to side through the crowded tiers of aficionados. She was only looking for a vacant place, but she was putting too much into it. I knew the type well in Hollywood, rich girls from the Midwest swaggering at Santa Barbara, hoping people would think they were movie stars.
I had never met Sally, but I recognized her at once. There aren't that many blondes in Mexico City. She was smaller than I had expected, too small to have so much spleen in her. But the quick, rather desperate walk was the way I expected it to be. And the hair too. It was beautiful really — shining and very fair, conspicuous here where there was mostly Mexican black hair and Mexican brown skin. But there was too much of it, too great a heaviness, it seemed, for the small head to support.
Below, in the circular ring, the monosabios in their tight red and white coats were scurrying around smoothing the sand. It was almost time for the first bull. One of the few empty places was next to me. I hoped accident wouldn't throw us together. I hoped even more strenuously that she hadn't heard enough about me from Martin and Iris to know who I was. I should have looked on her as an ally. After all, she had lost her husband to my wife. We should have been chummy. But I was fitted too snugly into my unhappiness. I couldn't bear the dreariness of comparing symptoms — particularly not with Sally Haven.
The cushion seller was coming up the steps toward me. She followed. So did the American. She was about six tiers down when her restless eyes found me. They appraised me as a male body with the blatant appraisal of a woman who has always been too rich to concern herself with modesty. Then the stare changed, a crinkle of speculation coming below her eyes. She smiled and lifted a hand in greeting. She glanced over her shoulder at the man behind her. She didn't seem to say anything, but he stopped following and found a seat near the steps. She came right on toward me after her cushion man, working past the feet of the other people in the row.
'You are Peter Duluth, aren't you? I'm sure I can't be wrong.'
Her voice was small and light, rather pretty.
I said, 'I recognized you too.'
As she stood in front of me, the slung yellow coat giving her shoulders a grotesque military breadth, the whole bull ring stretched behind her like a background chosen by a portrait painter. The crowded semicircular tiers of the Sun Section, the orange-yellow sand of the empty ring, the bright strips of advertising — and this tiny girl with the weight of blonde hair, oppressively close in front. Philip de Laszlo might have done it in the twenties. Or Zuloaga. Someone expensive and tricky, with a touch of malice too.
'You don't mind if I sit here, do you? After all, it seems absurd for us both to be alone.'
It was a complicated situation, of course. But she was making it worse than it had to be. She said that last phrase about our both being alone in an edgy, upslanting voice that ended in a conspiratorial laugh.
'I didn't think you were alone,' I said.
'Me? Why, of course I'm alone.'
'I thought that big American was with you.'
'American?' The wide eyes blinked. 'Was there an American? No.' She laughed. 'You don't imagine I'd be going around with men, do you? Me? Now?'
She stood watching me, waiting for me to invite her to sit down. The pattern of social politeness is one of the hardest patterns in life to break. I'd willingly have seen her in the bull ring gored by a bull before I'd have had her seated next to me. But I smiled and said I'd be delighted to have her join me. She gestured to the cushion vendor. He put a cushion down on the cement seat next to mine. She felt through a small, fancy pocketbook and gave him fifty centavos. He started to complain, asking for a peso. She turned her back and ignored him until he went away.
'They're always trying to gyp you, Mexicans.'
I'd heard that about her too, that she was mean with money.
She sat down, tugging at the yellow coat. She was wearing a spray of tuberoses pinned to the lapel. Their odor was so strong that it blotted out the generic bullring smell of sweat, dust, and stale beer. Marietta had told me she always wore tuberoses. To me, it's the perfume of coffins.
And just because she was Martin's wife she brought Martin bitterly close. Martin and Iris together — busting my life apart.
Above us, from one of the peanut galleries, trumpets blared over the crowd murmurs. That's how they begin. Doors opened directly in front of us. The old constable on his prancing horse rode across the ring, raised his plumed hat to the judge's box and backed out again, stately and faintly absurd like Don Quixote. High up, the band thumped into a paso doble and the garish parade of bull-killers started around the ring.
'You know the name, don't you? Sally Haven.' She laughed. 'You must have heard it often enough.'
'I've heard it.'
She laid her small hand on my sleeve and stared up at my face.
'You and me. It's strange, isn't it?'
'It had to happen sooner or later, I guess.'
'I don't know whether I'm pleased or not. Just now — I didn't know whether I would wave to you. I didn't know.'
The parade circled to whistles and cheers and marched out, leaving the ring empty and somehow ominous. The trumpets sounded again. A man in a brown suit and an American hat pulled back a side door under an advertisement for Carta Blanca beer. The first bull danced hopefully into the sunlight of the ring, black, muscular, and, to me, just like every other bull that passed through those gates.
She watched the animal brightly. 'I drove up from Taxco — just to come to the bulls. I don't know why. It was a sudden whim.' Her eyes moved again to me. They were a pale depthless blue. 'You have whims, I guess, when you are very unhappy. It's like being pregnant, isn't it?'
'I wouldn't know.'
'You're not very unhappy?'
'I've never been pregnant.'
I watched the ring vaguely. The peons were confusing the bull with their magenta capes lined with yellow. Already baffled, it charged one cape, got distracted, and charged at another. It looked stupid and rather forlorn, like a cocker spaniel that was being expected to do a trick it couldn't quite remember. One of the peons lost his cape. The bull loomed. The man vaulted over the barrier to safety. The crowd roared and hooted. People above us began to beat a rhythmic tattoo on the cast iron of an advertisement hung beneath their tier. The matador was out now doing his veronicas. My attention slid away.
She said, 'You're a theatrical producer in New York, aren't you? I suppose you come for the spectacle.'
'I don't know why I come. The bulls bore me.'
'They do? How American of you. I suppose you'd rather be at a ball game.'
'Maybe I would.'
'I love them.' She said that with sudden passion. 'Oh, I know it's un-chic to admit it. They fascinate me, the bullfights. They're horrible, of course. All that petrified pageantry. Beauty and blood. Blood and the ballet, Peter. It's a marriage feast for death. It's like everything else in this country. Dressed up for death. That's the only thing that excites them, isn't it, death?'
'I don't do much digging around in the Mexican libido.'
'But you must feel it.'
I was trying to keep her out of my consciousness, but there was a tension, a quivering in her, that made me as aware of her as if her hand had been on my knee.
Her eyes were fixed on the ring. The two picadors had come out on their fantastically upholstered horses. One was aiming his lance at the bull. Obediently, the bull charged. The lance thrust into its back, causing a slow trickle of blood. The bull jabbed at the horse, its horns caught in the upholstery that covered the armor. The horse was thrown back against the barrier. I felt faintly disgusted.
Her hand touched my knee then. It was as persistent as her voice.
'If you don't like it, then why did you come?'
'Because I'm in Mexico, because I'm on my own, because it's Sunday afternoon. Better bulls than bars.'
'Ah,' she said 'You came because you were alone. Then you haven't found anyone else. They are hurting you as much as they're hurting me.'
She was understanding, insidious, probing into my privacy. Soon she'd mention Iris by name. If it happened, I'd do something violent.
As the horse crashed against the barrier, the picador slid clumsily off its back. He dropped his lance and wormed away over the sand. The bull was still jabbing at the horse. The horse fell, its knees folding under it. It lay shivering, its tongue showing, passive to the bull's attack. Sally Haven's hand clutched into my arm, but she wasn't looking at me. The bull had found something to do that it understood. With stubborn concentration it pounded at the horse. It swerved it around, half exposing its unprotected side. Often the horns split into the horse's stomach then. But this time it didn't happen. One of the peons twitched his cape. The bull lumbered stupidly after him. Sally gave a little sigh. Of disappointment?
The dry heat of her next to me, the odor of the tuberoses, the maimed animal, merged into something horrible in my mind. And I thought that Sally was right. Beneath all the flummery crawled an obsession with death. Death seemed to hang over everything like a black, stifling serape.
The band played a few measures, indicating it was time for the banderillero. The horse was led hobbling away, while the peons fluttered around the bull. The banderillero came in. He carried two scarlet banderillas, festooned like circus candy. The bull sighted him, lowered its head, and pawed halfheartedly at the sand. The toreros withdrew. Slight in his prissy costume, his plump buttocks emphasized by pink tights, the banderillero stood watching the bull, the two darts pointing at the animal like wizards' wands in a classical ballet. The bull moved toward him. Swiftly the banderillero ran to it, plunged the darts into its neck, and twisted safely away to a roar of applause. He got two more darts and stuck them in. And two more. The virility of the bull and the girlish grace of the banderillero made it more than just a man sticking darts into an animal. It was a sort of sex act, and more blood trickled down the black hide.
The six carnival darts waggled in the bull's back like exotic quills. The band played 'La Diana'. Half the audience was on its feet, clapping. Sally jumped up too, the two little hands beating each other, her mouth half open, the coat slipping from one shoulder so that the turberoses were almost in my face.
The ovation over, the matador came in again with his little red cape and sword. I wasn't watching any more. Sally sat down, plucking at the coat. Things were going on in the ring, but they made no sense to me. Just a red rag and a half-dead bull. Everything, the graying of the evening, the screech of the aficionados, was ominous now. Even my baffled suffering for Iris seemed something dead. She didn't want me any more. Okay. Why didn't I forget her? Was I like a Mexican bull, in love with the darts in my back?
My attention blinked back to the ring. The matador had the bull stopped. They stood staring at each other for a moment. Then the matador thrust his sword up to its hilt into the animal's back. The bull stood, its head low, gulping. Slowly its knees buckled under it and it sank into bewildered death. The beribboned mules pranced in and dragged the bleeding body away over the sand.
The aficionados liked it, but not enthusiastically. I guess it had just been a run-of-the-mill kill.
People stood up and stretched and smoked cigarettes and shouted greetings to each other. Sally sat on, very still. Her face was pale. The skin around her mouth was tight. Something terrifically important and secret seemed to be going on inside her.
She turned to me as if my presence were a sudden discovery. 'You don't have a drink with you, do you?'
She laughed, and the laugh was more extreme than it had been before. 'Then you haven't taken to drink in your sorrows. In Taxco, they all say I have. They say Sally's lost her husband to a floozy from —'
'Shut up,' I said. It had come too quickly. I had no control.
The pale eyes, wide and unblinking, stared. 'My dear, do we have to be social — you and I? Just because Iris is your wife, do we have to choose our words daintily? She's acting like a floozy. And if you can't call a floozy a floozy –'
I got up. 'I was dumb to let you sit here.'
'My dear, why? Can't you face it? Are you hugging a lost love with a hurt behind the eyes?'
'We're people who're not going to like each other. We might as well get this over with as soon as possible. Goodbye.'
I started away. She jumped up, after me. Her hand came on my arm, drawing me back. People were watching, grinning. I turned. Her face had quite changed. Her eyes seemed darker and hollow as if something had been opened onto a bottomless void.
'You can't leave me,' she said. 'Please, please, you can't leave me.'
It amused me that she, who had behaved as badly as any of the four of us, should decide to be forlorn.
'I imagine I can leave you,' I said.
'But I came from Taxco to see you. Can't you understand? They're destroying me between them, Martin and Iris. They're trying to kill me. I've got to have someone. There isn't anyone. Not anyone.'
The spray of tuberoses had broken. The heavy blooms were flopped foolishly forward on her lapel.
I patted her arm. 'Stay here, little girl, with your bulls.'
'But you're on my side.' Her small heel was stamping against the cement floor. 'You've got to be on my side. They're making you suffer too. I can see it in your face. Don't go.'
'Sorry,' I said. 'But I've got a whim to go. You have whims, I guess, when you're very unhappy. It's like being pregnant.'
I walked away. When I reached the steps going down to the exit, I could see her yellow coat. She was still standing there, her shoulders hunched. Slowly she moved back to her seat and sat down.
The trumpets sounded high up.
As I left, the second bull was frisking hopefully into the ring.
This time it was a gray one with a white stripe over its eyes. Gray bulls show the blood more.
I was glad Sally had given me an excuse to go.CHAPTER 2
I had parked the car a couple of blocks from the bull ring. When she left me three weeks before, Iris had bequeathed me her car and her apartment. Not that a car and an apartment were much of a substitute for a wife I happened to be in love with.
On the sidewalks, Indians were milling around brightly colored stalls stocked with pyramids of fruit, pitchers of juices, dough frizzling in skillets over charcoal, and cheap socks. The pavement was cracked and filthy. An old woman followed me, waving a strip of lottery tickets and whining. A small boy whose brown-sugar skin showed through ripped denims claimed to have watched my car. I gave him twenty centavos, backed out past a flower barrow, and started home through the hard mountain sunlight.
Some of the bullfight atmosphere still lingered. None of those bustling people seemed real, just marionettes allowed to wiggle a while before they were shut up in wooden boxes.
I had stopped thinking about Sally Haven. She meant so much to the others. She had become to them the bogeyman of the whole setup. But you have to get adjusted to unhappiness before you look around for someone else to blame. I was still trying to get used to the fact that Iris was gone.
Things had begun to go sour between us in New York. I'd come back from three years in the Pacific war, touchy, restless, and impossible to please. To make it worse, during my absence, Iris had become a famous movie star. I returned to find her with the world at her feet. I had nothing at my feet, just a bunch of ribbons on my chest. I tried to get back into theatrical producing, but things didn't pan out. I had terrific, impractical plans for the indefinite future which mostly dissolved into mooning around the house, smoking, drinking. I hated everyone who hadn't gone through what I'd gone through. I hated anyone who was more successful. I guess I almost hated Iris.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Puzzle for Pilgrims"
Copyright © 1976 Hugh C. Wheeler.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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