Read Long After Midnight Online

Authors: Ray Bradbury

Long After Midnight (4 page)

 
          
Dad
pretended to be considerate. "Let him go without supper," he said to
my mother, when he saw me neglect my food. He winked at her. "He'll eat
later."

 
          
All
evening long I played on the warm brick streets of town, rattling the tin cans
and climbing the trees in the growing dark.

 
          
Coming
into the kitchen at
ten o'clock
, I realized it was no use. There was a note
on top of the icebox which said, "Help yourself. Dad."

 
          
I
opened the refrigerator, and a little cool breath breathed out against me,
cold, with the smell of rimed foods on it. Inside was the wondrous half-ruin of
a chicken. Members of celery were piled like cords of wood. Strawberries grew
in a thicket of parsley.

 
          
My
hands blurred. They made motions that caused an illusion of a dozen hands. Like
those pictures of Eastern goddesses they worship in temples. One hand with a
tomato in it. One hand grasping a banana. A third hand seizing strawberries! A
fourth, fifth, sixth hand caught in
midmotion
, each
with a bit of cheese, olive, or radish!

 
          
Half
an hour later I knelt by the toilet bowl and swiftly raised the seat. Then,
rapidly, I opened my mouth, and shoved a spoon back, back along my tongue,
down, down along my gagging throat. . . .

 
          
Lying
in bed, I shuddered and tasted the acrid memory in my mouth, glad to be rid of
the food I had so eagerly swallowed. I hated myself for my weakness. I lay
trembling, empty, hungry again, but too sick, now, to eat. ...

 
          
I
was very weak in the morning, and noticeably pale, for my mother made a comment
on it. "If you're not better by Monday," she said, "to the
doctor's with
youl
"

 
          
It
was Saturday. The day of shouting, and no tiny little silver bells for teachers
to silence it; the day when the colorless giants moved on the pale screen at
the Elite movie house in the long theater dark, and children were only
children, and not things growing.

 
          
I
saw no one. In the morning when I should have been hiking out along the North
Shore Rail Line, where the hot sun simmered up from the long parallels of
metal, I lolled about in terrific indecision. And by the time I got to the
ravine it was already
midafternoon
and it was
deserted; all of the kids had run downtown to see the matinee and suck lemon
drops.

 
          
The
ravine was very alone, it looked so undisturbed and old and green, I was a
little afraid of it. I had never seen it so quiet. The vines hung quietly upon
the trees and the water went over the rocks and the birds sang high up.

 
          
I
went down the secret trail, hiding behind bushes, pausing, going on.

 
          
Clarisse
Mellin
was crossing the bridge as I reached it. She
was coming home from town with some little packages under her arm. We said
hello, self-consciously.

 
          
"What
are you doing?" she asked.

 
          
"Oh,
walking around," I said.

 
          
"All
alone?"

 
          
"Yeah.
All the other guys are downtown."

 
          
She
hesitated, then said, "Can I walk with you?"

 
          
"I
guess so," I said. "Come on."

 
          
We
walked down through the ravine. It was humming like a big dynamo. Nothing
seemed to want to move, everything was quiet. Pink darning needles flew and
bumped on air pockets, and hovered over the sparkling creek water.

 
          
Clarisse's
hand bumped mine as we walked along the trail. I smelled the moist dank smell
of the ravine and the soft new smell of Clarisse beside me.

 
          
We
came to a place where there was a cross trail.

 
          
"We
built a tree hut up there last year," I said, pointing.

 
          
"Where?"
Clarisse stepped close to me to see where my finger was pointing. "I don't
see."

 
          
"There,"
I said, my voice breaking, and pointed again.

 
          
Very
quietly, she put her arm around me. I was so surprised and bewildered I almost
cried out. Then, trembling, her lips kissed me, and my own hands were moving to
hold her and I was shaking and shouting inside myself.

 
          
The
silence was like a green explosion. The water bubbled on in the creek bed. I
couldn't breathe.

 
          
I
knew it was all over. I was lost. From this moment on, it would be a touching,
an eating of foods, a learning of language and algebra and logic, a movement
and an emotion, a kissing and a holding, a whirl of feeling that caught and
sucked me drowning under. I knew I was lost forever now, and I didn't care. But
I
did
care, and I was laughing and
crying all in one, and there was nothing to do about it, but hold her and love
her with all my decided and rioting body and mind.

 
          
I
could have gone on fighting my war against Mother and Dad and school and food
and things in books, but I couldn't fight this sweetness on my lips and this
warmness in my hands, and the new odor in my nostrils.

 
          
"Clarisse,
Clarisse," I cried, holding her, looking over her shoulder blindly,
whispering to her. "Clarisse!"

 

The Parrot Who
Met Papa

 

 

 
          
 

 
          
The
kidnaping
was reported all around the world, of
course.

 
          
It
took a few days for the full significance of the news to spread from
Cuba
to the
United States
, to the
Left Bank
in
Paris
and then finally to some small good cafe*
in
Pamplona
where the drinks were fine and the weather,
somehow, was always just right.

 
          
But
once the meaning of the news really hit, people were on the phone,
Madrid
was calling
New York
,
New York
was shouting south at
Havana
to verify, please verify this crazy thing.

 
          
And
then some woman in
Venice
,
Italy
, with a blurred voice called through,
saying she was at Harry's Bar that very instant and was destroyed, this thing
that had happened was terrible, a cultural heritage was placed in immense and
irrevocable danger. . . .

 
          
Not
an hour later, I got a call from a baseball pitcher-cum-novelist who had been a
great friend of Papa's and who now lived in
Madrid
half the year and
Nairobi
the rest. He was in tears, or sounded close
to it.

 
          
"Tell
me,” he said, from halfway around the world, "what happened? What are the
facts?"

 
          
Well,
the facts were these: Down in
Havana
,
Cuba
, about fourteen kilometers from Papa's
Finca
Vigia
home, there is a bar
in which he used to drink. It is the one where they named a special drink for
him, not the fancy one where he used to meet flashy literary lights such as
K-K-Kenneth
Tynan
and,
er
,
Tennessee W-Williams (as Mr.
Tynan
would say it). No,
it is not the
Floridita
; it is a shirt-sleeves place
with plain wooden tables, sawdust on the floor, and a big mirror like a dirty
cloud behind the bar. Papa went there when there were too many tourists around
the
Floridita
who wanted to meet Mr. Hemingway. And
the thing that happened there was destined to be big news, bigger than the
report of what he said to Fitzgerald about the rich, even bigger than the story
of his swing at Max Eastman on that long-ago day in Charlie Scribner's office.
This news had to do with an ancient parrot.

 
          
That
senior bird lived in a cage right atop the bar in the Cuba
Libre
.
He had "kept his cage" in that place for roughly twenty-nine years,
which means that the old parrot had been there almost as long as Papa had lived
in Cuba.

 
          
And
that adds up to this monumental fact: All during the time Papa had lived in
Finca
Vigia
, he had known the
parrot and had talked to him and the parrot had talked back. As the years
passed, people said that Hemingway began to talk like the parrot and others
said no, the parrot learned to talk like
him!
Papa used to line the drinks up on the counter and sit near the cage and
involve that bird in the best kind of conversation you ever heard, four nights
running. By the end of the second year, that parrot knew more about Hem and
Thomas Wolfe and Sherwood Anderson than Gertrude Stein did. In fact, the parrot
even knew who Gertrude Stein
was.
All
you had to say was "Gertrude" and the parrot said:

 
          
"Pigeons
on the grass alas."

 
          
At
the other times, pressed, the parrot would say, "There was this old man
and this boy and this boat and this sea and this big fish in the sea. .
.." And then it would take time out to eat a cracker.

 
          
Well,
this fabled creature, this parrot, this odd bird, vanished, cage and all, from
the Cuba
Libre
late one Sunday afternoon.

 
          
And
that's why my phone was ringing itself off the hook. And that's why one of the
big magazines got a special State Department clearance and flew me down to
Cuba
to see if I could find so much as the cage,
anything remaining of the bird or anyone resembling a kidnaper. They wanted a
light and amiable article, with overtones, as they said. And, very honestly, I
was curious. I had heard rumors of the bird. In a strange kind of way, I was concerned.

 
          
I
got off the jet from
Mexico City
and taxied straight across
Havana
to that strange little cafe"-bar.

 
          
I
almost failed to get in the place. As I stepped through the door, a dark little
man jumped up from a chair and cried, "No,
nol
Go away! We are
closedl
"

 
          
He
ran out to jiggle the lock on the door, showing that he really meant to shut
the place down. All the tables were empty and there was no one around. He had
probably just been airing out the bar when I arrived.

 
          
"I've
come about the parrot,"
I
said.

 
          
"No,
no," he cried, his eyes looking wet. "I won't talk. It's too much. If
I were not Catholic, I would
ldll
myself. Poor Papa.
Poor El C6rdobal"

 
          
^'El
Cojdoba
?" I murmured.

 
          
"That,"
he said fiercely, "was the
parrof
s name!"

 
          
"Yes,"
I said, recovering quickly. "El C6rdoba. I've come to rescue him."

 
          
That
made him stop and blink. Shadows and then sunlight went over his face and then
shadows again.

 
          
"Impossible!
Could you? No, no. How could anyone! Who
are
you?"

 
          
"A
friend to Papa and the bird," I said quickly. "And the more time we
talk, the farther away goes the criminal. You want El C6rdoba back tonight?
Pour us several of Papa's good drinks and talk."

 
          
My
bluntness worked. Not two minutes later, we were drinking Papa's special, seated
in the bar near the empty place where the cage used to sit. The little man,
whose name was Antonio, kept wiping that empty place and then wiping his eyes
with the bar rag. As I finished the first drink and started on the second, I
said:

 
          
"This
is no ordinary
kidnaping
."

 
          
"You're
telling me!" cried Antonio. "People came from all over the world to
see that parrot, to talk to El C6rdoba, to hear him, ah, God, speak with the
voice of Papa. May his abductors sink and burn in hell, yes, hell."

 
          
"They
will," I said. "Whom do you suspect?"

 
          
"Everyone.
No one."

 
          
"The
kidnaper," I said, eyes shut for a moment, savoring the drink, "had
to be educated, a book reader, I mean, that's obvious, isn't it? Anyone like
that around the last few days?"

 
          
"Educated.
No education.
Senor,
there have
always been strangers the last ten, the last twenty years, always asking for
Papa. When Papa was here, they met him. With Papa gone, they met El C6rdoba,
the great one. So it was always strangers and strangers."

 
          
"But
think, Antonio," I said, touching his trembling elbow. "Not only
educated, a reader, but someone in the last few days who was—how shall I put
it?—odd. Strange. Someone so peculiar,
muy
eccSntrico
,
that you remember him above all others.
Someone who—"

 
          
"
jMadre
de
DiosF
'
cried Antonio, leaping up. His eyes stared off
into memory. He seized his head as if it had just exploded. "Thank you,
senor. ,
sil
What
a creature! In the name of Christ, there was such a one yesterday! He was very
small. And he spoke like this: very high—
eeeee
.
Like a
muchacha
in a school play, eh? Like a canary
swallowed by a witch! And he wore a blue-velvet suit with a big yellow
tie."

 
          
"Yes,
yes!" I had leaped up now and was almost yelling. "Go on!"

 
          
"And
he had a small very round face, senor, and his hair was yellow and cut across
the brow like this—
zitti
And his mouth small, very pink, like
candy, yes? He-he was like, yes,
uno
muneco
,
of the kind one wins at carnivals."

 
          
"Kewpie
dolls!"

 
          
"
/
Si
/ At
Coney Island
,
yes, when I was a child, Kewpie dolls! And he was so high, you see? To my
elbow. Not a midget, no—but—and how old? Blood of Christ, who can say? No lines
in his face, but—thirty, forty, fifty. And on his feet he was wearing—"

 
          
"Green
booties!" I cried.

 
          
"Shoes,
boots!"

 
          
"
Si
." He blinked, stunned. "But how did you

 
          
I
exploded, "Shelley Capon!"

 
          
"That
is the name! And his friends with him,
senor,
all laughing—no, giggling. like the nuns who play basketball in the late
afternoons near the church. Oh,
senor,
do
you think that they, that he—"

 
          
"I
don't think, Antonio, I
know.
Shelley
Capon, of all the writers in the world, hated Papa. Of course he would snatch
El C6rdoba. Why, wasn't there a rumor once that the bird had memorized Papa's
last, greatest, and as-yet-not-put-down-on-paper novel?"

 
          
"There
was such a rumor,
senor.
But I do not
write books, I tend bar. I bring crackers to the bird. I—"

 
          
"You
bring me the phone, Antonio, please."

 
          
"You
know where the bird is,
senor?"

 
          
"I
have the hunch beyond intuition, the big one.
Gracias."
I dialed the Havana
Libre
,
the biggest hotel in town.

 
          
"Shelley
Capon, please."

 
          
The
phone buzzed and clicked.

 
          
Half
a million miles away, a midget boy Martian lifted the receiver and played the
flute and then the bell chimes with his voice: "Capon here."

 
          
"Damned
if you aren't!" I said. And got up and ran out of the Cuba
Libre
bar.

 
          
Racing
back to
Havana
by taxi, I thought of Shelley as I'd seen
him before. Surrounded by a storm of friends, living out of suitcases, ladling
soup from other people's plates, borrowing money from billfolds seized from
your pockets right in front of you, counting the lettuce leaves with relish,
leaving rabbit pellets on your rug, gone. Dear Shelley Capon.

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