“‘it was the best fokk i effer haff,’ ilsa replies”: a night at the movies with robert coover


“For taking the dross of the ordinary and spinning it into the treasure of Myth, the 1987 Rea Award for the Short Story goes to Robert Coover, a writer who has managed, willfully and even perversely, to remain his own man while offering his generous vision and versions of America.” — Rea Award Citation

           

In A Night at the Movies, his first volume of short fiction since the internationally acclaimed Pricksongs & Descants, Robert Coover presents a fiendishly clever and outrageously funny set of satires on the pictures and personalities of the big Silver Screen. Complete with previews of coming attractions, cartoons, the weekly serial, a travelogue, musical interlude, and three full-length features, here are Adventure! Comedy! Romance! Westerns! and much, much more! Expect the unexpected from that malevolent magician and pyrotechnician who has fashioned an entirely new art form out of film and fiction confirming, once again, his status as one of America’s most daring, unpredictable, and prodigiously imaginative writers. (from the jacket copy) 

You Must Remember This

 

It is dark in Rick’s apartment. Black leader dark, heavy and abstract, silent but for a faint hoarse crackle like a voiceless plaint, and brief as sleep. Then Rick opens the door and the light from the hall scissors in like a bellboy to open up space, deposit surfaces (there is a figure in the room), harbinger event (it is Ilsa). Rick follows, too preoccupied to notice: his café is closed, people have been shot, he has troubles. But then, with a stroke, he lights a small lamp (such a glow! the shadows retreat, everything retreats: where are the walls?) and there she is, facing him, holding open the drapery at the far window like the front of a nightgown, the light flickering upon her white but determined face like static. Rick pauses for a moment in astonishment. Ilsa lets the drapery and its implications drop, takes a step forward into the strangely fretted light, her eyes searching his.         
          “How did you get in?” he asks, though this is probably not the question on his mind.

          “The stairs from the street.”

          This answer seems to please him. He knows how vulnerable he is, after all, it’s the way he lives — his doors are open, his head is bare, his tuxedo jacket is snowy white — that’s not important. What matters is that by such a reply a kind of destiny is being fulfilled. Sam has a song about it. “I told you this morning you’d come around,” he says, curling his lips as if to advertise his appetite for punishment, “but this is a little ahead of schedule.” She faces him squarely, broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, a sash around her waist like a gun belt, something shiny in her tensed left hand. He raises both his own as if to show they are empty: “Well, won’t you sit down?”

          His offer, whether in mockery or no, releases her. Her shoulders dip in relief, her breasts; she sweeps forward (it is only a small purse she is carrying: a toothbrush perhaps, cosmetics, her hotel key), her face softening: “Richard!” He starts back in alarm, hands moving to his hips. “I had to see you!”

          “So you use Richard again!” His snarling retreat throws up a barrier between them. She stops. He pushes his hands into his pockets as though to reach for the right riposte: “We’re back in Paris!”

          That probably wasn’t it. Their song seems to be leaking into the room from somewhere out in the night, or perhaps it has been there all the time — Sam maybe, down in the darkened bar, sending out soft percussive warnings in the manner of his African race: “Think twice, boss. Hearts fulla passion, you c’n rely. Jealousy, boss, an’ hate. Le’s go fishin’. Sam.”

          “Please!” she begs, staring at him intently, but he remains unmoved:

          “Your unexpected visit isn’t connected by any chance with the letters of transit?” He ducks his head, his upper lip swelling with bitterness and hurt. “It seems as long as I have those letters, I’ll never be lonely.”

          Yet, needless to say, he will always be lonely — in fact, this is the confession (“You can ask any price you want,” she is saying) only half-concealed in his muttered subjoinder: Rick Blaine is a loner, born and bred. Pity him. There is this lingering, almost primal image of him, sitting alone at a chessboard in his white tuxedo, smoking contemplatively in the midst of a raucous conniving crowd, a crowd he has himself assembled about him. He taps apawn, moves a white knight, fondles a tall black queen while a sardonic smile plays on his lips. He seems to be toying, self-mockingly, with Fate itself, as indifferent toward Rick Blaine (never mind that he says — as he does now, turning away from her — that “I’m the only cause I’m interested in . . .”) as toward the rest of the world. It’s all shit, so who cares?

          Ilsa is staring off into space, a space that a moment ago Rick filled. She seems to be thinking something out. The negotiations are going badly; perhaps it is this she is worried about. He has just refused her offer of “any price,” ignored her ultimatum (“You must giff me those letters!”), sneered at her husband’s heroism, and scoffed at the very cause that first brought them together in Paris. How could he do that? And now he has abruptly turned his back on her (does he think it was just sex? what has happened to him since then?) and walked away toward the balcony door, meaning, apparently, to turn her out. She takes a deep breath, presses her lips together, and, clutching her tiny purse with both hands, wheels about to pursue him: “Richard!” This has worked before, it works again: he turns to face her new approach: “We luffed each other once. . .” Her voice catches in her throat, tears come to her eyes. She is beautiful there in the slatted shadows, her hair loosening around her ears, eyes glittering, throat bare and vulnerable in the open V-neck of her ruffled blouse. She’s a good dresser. Even that little purse she squeezes: so like the other one, so lovely, hidden away. She shakes her head slightly in wistful appeal: “If those days meant. . . anything at all to you. . .”

          “I wouldn’t bring up Paris if I were you,” he says stonily. “It’s poor salesmanship.”

          She gasps (she didn’t bring it up: is he a madman?), tosses her head back: “Please! Please listen to me!” She closes her eyes, her lower lip pushed forward as though bruised. “If you knew what really happened, if you only knew the truth –!”

          He stands over this display, impassive as a Moorish executioner (that’s it! he’s turning into one of these bloody Arabs, she thinks). “I wouldn’t believe you, no matter what you told me,” he says. In Ethiopia, after an attempt on the life of an Italian officer, he saw 1600 Ethiopians get rounded up one night and shot in reprisal. Many were friends of his. Or clients anyway. But somehow her deceit is worse. “You’d say anything now, to get what you want.” Again he turns his back on her, strides away.

          She stares at him in shocked silence, as though all that had happened eighteen months ago in Paris were flashing suddenly before her eyes, now made ugly by some terrible revelation. An exaggerated gasp escapes her like the breaking of wind: his head snaps up and he turns sharply to the right. She chases him, dogging his heels. “You want to feel sorry for yourself, don’t you?” she cries and, surprised (he was just reaching for something on an ornamental table, the humidor perhaps), he turns back to her. “With so much at stake, all you can think off is your own feeling,” she rails. Her lips are drawn back, her breathing labored, her eyes watering in anger and frustration. “One woman has hurt you, and you take your reffenge on the rest off the world!” She is choking, she can hardly speak. Her accent seems to have got worse. “You’re a coward, und veakling, und –“

          She gasps. What is she saying? He watches her, as though faintly amused. “No, Richard, I’m sorry!” Tears are flowing in earnest now: she’s gone too far! This is the expression on her face. She’s in a corner, struggling to get out. “I’m sorry, but –” She wipes the tears from her cheek, and calls once again on her husband, that great and courageous man whom they both admire, whom the whole world admires: “– you’re our last hope! If you don’t help us, Victor Laszlo will die in Casablanca!”

          “What of it?” he says. He has been waiting for this opportunity. He plays with it now, stretching it out. He turns, reaches for a cigarette, his head haloed in the light from an arched doorway. “I’m gonna die in Casablanca. It’s a good spot for it.” This line is meant to be amusing, but Ilsa reacts with horror. Her eyes widen. She catches her breath, turns away. He lights up, pleased with himself, takes a practiced drag, blows smoke. “Now,” he says, turning toward her, “if you’ll –“

          He pulls up short, squints: she has drawn a revolver on him. So much for toothbrushes and hotel keys. “All right. I tried to reason with you. I tried effrything. Now I want those letters.” Distantly, a melodic line suggests a fight for love and glory, an ironic case of do or die. “Get them for me.”

          “I don’t have to.” He touches his jacket. “I got ’em right here.”

          “Put them on the table.”

          He smiles and shakes his head. “No.” Smoke curls up from the cigarette he is holding at his side like the steam that enveloped the five o’clock train to Marseilles. Her eyes fill with tears. Even as she presses on (“For the last time. . .!”), she knows that “no” is final. There is, behind his ironic smile, a profound sadness, the fatalistic survivor’s wistful acknowledgment that, in the end, the fundamental things apply. Time, going by, leaves nothing behind, not even moments like this. “If Laszlo and the cause mean so much,” he says, taunting her with her own uncertainties, “you won’t stop at anything. . .”

          He seems almost to recede. The cigarette disappears, the smoke. His sorrow gives way to something not unlike eagerness. “All right, I’ll make it easier for you,” he says, and walks toward her. “Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.”

          She seems taken aback, her eyes damp, her lips swollen and parted. Light licks at her face. He gazes steadily at her from his superior moral position, smoke drifting up from his hand once more, his white tuxedo pressed against the revolver barrel. Her eyes close as the gun lowers, and she gasps his name: “Richard!” It is like an invocation. Or a profession of faith. “I tried to stay away,” she sighs. She opens her eyes, peers up at him in abject surrender. A tear moves slowly down her cheek toward the corner of her mouth like secret writing. “I thought I would neffer see you again . . . that you were out off my life. . .” She blinks, cries out faintly — “Oh!” — and (he seems moved at last, his mask of disdain falling away like perspiration) turns away, her head wrenched to one side as though in pain.

          Stricken with sudden concern, or what looks like concern, he steps up behind her, clasping her breasts with both hands, nuzzling in her hair. “The day you left Paris. . .!” she sobs, though she seems unsure of herself. One of his hands is already down between her legs, the other inside her blouse, pulling a breast out of its brassiere cup. “If you only knew. . . what I. . .” He is moaning, licking at one ear, the hand between her legs nearly lifting her off the floor, his pelvis bumping at her buttocks. “Is this. . . right?” she gasps.

          “I – I don’t know!” he groans, massaging her breast, the nipple between two fingers. “I can’t think!”

          “But. . . you must think!” she cries, squirming her hips. Tears are streaming down her cheeks now. “For. . . for. . .”

          “What?” he gasps, tearing her blouse open, pulling on her breast as though to drag it over her shoulder where he might kiss it. Or eat it: he seems ravenous suddenly.

          “I. . . I can’t remember!” she sobs. She reaches behind to jerk at his fly (what else is she to do, for the love of Jesus?), then rips away her sash, unfastens her skirt, her fingers trembling.

          “Holy shit!” he wheezes, pushing his hand inside her girdle as her skirt falls. His cheeks too are wet with tears. “Ilsa!”

          “Richard!”

          They fall to the floor, grabbing and pulling at each other’s clothing. He’s trying to get her bra off which is tangled up now with her blouse, she’s struggling with his belt, yanking at his black pants, wrenching them open. Buttons fly, straps pop, there’s the soft unfocused rip of silk, the jingle of buckles and falling coins, grunts, gasps, whimpers of desire. He strips the tangled skein of underthings away (all these straps and stays — how does she get in and out of this crazy elastic?); she works his pants down past his bucking hips, fumbles with his shoes. “Your elbow –!”

          “Mmmff!”

          “Ah –!”

          She pulls his pants and boxer shorts off, crawls round and (he strokes her shimmering buttocks, swept by the light from the airport tower, watching her full breasts sway above him: it’s all happening so fast, he’d like to slow it down, repeat some of the better bits — that view of her rippling haunches on her hands and knees just now, for example, like a 22, his lucky number — but there’s a great urgency on them, they can’t wait) straddles him, easing him into her like a train being guided into a station. “I luff you, Richard!” she declares breathlessly, though she seems to be speaking, eyes squeezed shut and breasts heaving, not to him but to the ceiling, if there is one up there. His eyes too are closed now, his hands gripping her soft hips, pulling her down, his breath coming in short anguished snorts, his face puffy and damp with tears. There is, as always, something deeply wounded and vulnerable about the expression on his battered face, framed there against his Persian carpet: Rick Blaine, a man annealed by loneliness and betrayal, but flawed — hopelessly, it seems — by hope itself. He is, in the tragic sense, a true revolutionary: his gaping mouth bespeaks this, the spittle in the corners of his lips, his eyes, open now and staring into some infinite distance not unlike the future, his knitted brow. He heaves upward, impaling her to the very core: “Oh, Gott!” she screams, her back arching, mouth agape as though to commence “La Marseillaise.”

          Now, for a moment, they pause, feeling themselves thus conjoined, his organ luxuriating in the warm tub of her vagina, her enflamed womb closing around his pulsing penis like a mother embracing a lost child. “If you only knew. . . ,” she seems to say, though perhaps she has said this before and only now it can be heard. He fondles her breasts; she rips his shirt open, strokes his chest, leans forward to kiss his lips, his nipples. This is not Victor inside her with his long thin rapier, all too rare in its embarrassed visits; this is not Yvonne with her cunning professional muscles, her hollow airy hole. This is love in all its clammy mystery, the ultimate connection, the squishy rub of truth, flesh as a self-consuming message. This is necessity, as in woman needs man, and man must have his mate. Even their identities seem to be dissolving; they have to whisper each other’s name from time to time as though in recitative struggle against some ultimate enchantment from which there might be no return. Then slowly she begins to wriggle her hips above him, he to meet her gentle undulations with counterthrusts of his own. They hug each other close, panting, her breasts smashed against him, moving only from the waist down. She slides her thighs between his and squeezes his penis between them, as though to conceal it there, an underground member on the run, wounded but unbowed. He lifts his stockinged feet and plants them behind her knees as though in stirrups, her buttocks above pinching and opening, pinching and opening like a suction pump. And it is true about her vaunted radiance: she seems almost to glow from within, her flexing cheeks haloed in their own dazzling luster.

          “It feels so good, Richard! In there. . . I’ve been so — ah! –– so lonely. . .!”

          “Yeah, me too, kid. Ngh! Don’t talk.”

          She slips her thighs back over his and draws them up beside his waist like a child curling around her teddybear, knees against his ribs, her fanny gently bobbing on its pike like a mind caressing a cherished memory. He lies there passively for a moment, stretched out, eyes closed, accepting this warm rhythmical ablution as one might accept a nanny’s teasing bath, a mother’s care (a care, he’s often said, denied him), in all its delicious innocence — or seemingly so: in fact, his whole body is faintly atremble, as though, with great difficulty, shedding the last of its pride and bitterness, its isolate neutrality. Then slowly his own hips begin to rock convulsively under hers, his knees to rise in involuntary surrender. She tongues his ear, her buttocks thumping more vigorously now, kisses his throat, his nose, his scarred lip, then rears up, arching her back, tossing her head back (her hair is looser now, wilder, a flush has crept into the distinctive pallor of her cheeks and throat, and what was before a fierce determination is now raw intensity, what vulnerability now a slack-jawed abandon), plunging him in more deeply than ever, his own buttocks bouncing up off the floor as though trying to take off like the next flight to Lisbon — “Gott in Himmel, this is fonn!” she cries. She reaches behind her back to clutch his testicles, he clasps her hand in both of his, his thighs spread, she falls forward, they roll over, he’s pounding away now from above (he lacks her famous radiance: if anything his buttocks seem to suck in light, drawing a nostalgic murkiness around them like night fog, signaling a fundamental distance between them, and an irresistible attraction), she’s clawing at his back under the white jacket, at his hips, his thighs, her voracious nether mouth leaping up at him from below and sliding back, over and over, like a frantic greased-pole climber. Faster and faster they slap their bodies together, submitting to this fierce rhythm as though to simplify themselves, emitting grunts and whinnies and helpless little farts, no longer Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund, but some nameless conjunction somewhere between them, time, space, being itself getting redefined by the rapidly narrowing focus of their incandescent passion — then suddenly Rick rears back, his face seeming to puff out like a gourd, Ilsa cries out and kicks upward, crossing her ankles over Rick’s clenched buttocks, for a moment they seem almost to float, suspended, unloosed from the earth’s gravity, and then — whumpff — they hit the floor again, their bodies continuing to hammer together, though less regularly, plunging, twitching, prolonging this exclamatory dialogue, drawing it out even as the intensity diminishes, even as it becomes more a declaration than a demand, more an inquiry than a declaration. Ilsa’s feet uncross, slide slowly to the floor. “Fooff. . . Gott!” They lie there, cheek to cheek, clutching each other tightly, gasping for breath, their thighs quivering with the last involuntary spasms, the echoey reverberations, deep in their loins, of pleasure’s fading blasts.

          “Jesus,” Rick wheezes, “I’ve been saving that one for a goddamn year and a half. . .!”

          “It was the best fokk I effer haff,” Ilsa replies with a tremulous sigh, and kisses his ear, runs her fingers in his hair. He starts to roll off her, but she clasps him closely: “No. . . wait. . .!” A deeper thicker pleasure, not so ecstatic, yet somehow more moving, seems to well up from far inside her to embrace the swollen visitor snuggled moistly in her womb, once a familiar friend, a comrade loved and trusted, now almost a stranger, like one resurrected from the dead.

          “Ah –!” he gasps. God, it’s almost like she’s milking it! Then she letsgo, surrounding him spongily with a kind of warm wet pulsating gratitude. “Ah. . .”

          He lies there between Ilsa’s damp silky thighs, feeling his weight thicken, his mind soften and spread. His will drains away as if it were some kind of morbid affection, lethargy overtaking him like an invading army. Even his jaw goes slack, his fingers (three sprawl idly on a dark-tipped breast) limp. He wears his snowy white tuxedo jacket still, his shiny black socks, which, together with the parentheses of Ilsa’s white thighs, make his melancholy buttocks — beaten in childhood, lashed at sea, run lean in union skirmishes, sunburned in Ethiopia, and shot at in Spain — look gloomier than ever, swarthy and self-pitying, agape now with a kind of heroic sadness. A violent tenderness. These buttocks are, it could be said, what the pose of isolation looks like at its best: proud, bitter, mournful, and, as the prefect of police might have put it, tremendously attractive. Though his penis has slipped out of its vaginal pocket to lie limply like a fat little toe against her slowly pursing lips, she clasps him close still, clinging to something she cannot quite define, something like a spacious dream of freedom, or a monastery garden, or the discovery of electricity. “Do you have a gramophone on, Richard?”

          “What –?!” Her question has startled him. His haunches snap shut, his head rears up, snorting, he seems to be reaching for the letters of transit. “Ah. . . no. . .” He relaxes again, letting his weight fall back, though sliding one thigh over hers now, stretching his arms out as though to unkink them, turning his face away. His scrotum bulges up on her thigh like an emblem of his inner serenity and generosity, all too often concealed, much as an authentic decency might shine through a mask of cynicism and despair. He takes a deep breath. (A kiss is just a kiss is what the music is insinuating. A sigh. . . )   “That’s probably
Sam. . .”

 

—from Robert Coover’s “You Must Remember This,” in his A Night at the Movies (1987)

 

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