WORTH THE DETOUR
Edith Pearlman


What if, plodding through the numbered rooms of a great art museum, you feel processed. What if, sitting with one thousand other listeners in a great symphony hall, you feel not only processed but stuffed into a can. “Like Spam,” remarks my Favorite Traveling Companion. What if, dining at a great restaurant where the busboy is more cultivated than the patrons, you develop heartburn. Should you stay home?

My companion and I, indifferent to high culture and haute cuisine, nevertheless visit the big and little cities of the world, cities with museums and symphonies and starred restaurants.

But what do you do there? our friends inquire, knowing our prejudices.

Ah, says my companion.

Well, I clarify.

Schlepp around, she confides.

Every morning we set out in the general direction of a Destination. It may be a monument, a farmers’ market, a cathedral, a bridge, a birthplace, a port, a square, or a zoo. But stop! Listen to that wretch on a harmonica—perhaps we could pay him to go elsewhere. How peaceable this narrow churchyard. Saint who? Look at that noble sycamore…At a café table an old woman lights an older woman’s cigar...Two urchins have been following us. We stare them down; they back up and turn away. We follow them until they veer off into an alley; then we choose a more prudent route. We slip into a beguiling gallery with no numbers on either of its rooms.

Ambling in this manner, we do reach some Destination. We gaze up at it, buy apples from it, enter its velvety darkness, walk across it, read its plaque, watch the activity of its ships, watch the activity of its citizens, or stroll from one kingly animal to another.

And so, ready for lunch, we find a pub, a beer garden, a noodle shop. Or, if we are in Central America, we seek out (becoming briefly purposeful) one of those courtyards hidden from the street, where the cuisine is beans, rice, plantains, and tough chicken—where flowering trees rise from cobblestones and a fountain sings.

We then head towards a new Destination (a monument, a farmers’ market…) and are again diverted by notes spilling from the open window of a music school; or a soccer game played by off-duty waiters; or a local circus, where the acrobat doubles as the sawdust sweeper.

Happy hour! At last we consult a map. If we’re far from our hotel, we find a bar and drink beer and nibble nuts. If we’re near the hotel, we return to our room, which we have provisioned. On our narrow balcony we drink wine and eat crackers spread with Spam.

And then, having brushed our teeth, we go out and find some taverna facing a nameless square; or a fish joint on an ignored stretch of river; or (this was in the Galilee) a few trestle tables and an open fireplace, all halfway up a hill. We had to climb to reach that place and were rewarded with grilled lamb and a view of the lake turning from silver to pewter to black moire. One evening in Budapest we ended up in a humble whitewashed room—small candle-lit tables, small exposed kitchen. The resident violinist sawed for a while, then tucked into a midnight supper of bean soup. The cook came out from behind his cauldrons and drank a glass of wine in the doorway, his profile backlit in the Mannerist style.

In Belize, we stayed in a hotel whose ecologically minded proprietor was saving young iguanas in an octagonal cage. Clinging to the screen, safe from predators, they looked enchanting: lime green, with glassy eyes, a pale aqua patch on their throbbing necks, delicate claws, tiny scales. And then, on a Thursday night, those ungrateful lizards tunneled under their gazebo and fled—declaring their distaste for arrangements made by others, their preference for taking what comes.

One drizzly day in front of the Madeleine, what came to us was a courteous Frenchman. His clothes had once been fashionable. His face had once been young. “The best thing to do on a rainy afternoon,” he said in a thrilling voice, “is to spend it with friends.”

So we bought him a drink…drinks. We sat, at his suggestion, in the shadowy rear of a nearby café. Who knows who was after him—a creditor, a lover. He talked very well: first about music and art, mistaking our bent; then about other things. The restoration of the Metro stations. The snooty doorman at the Ritz. The people he had met during his years as a commercial traveler, as a bookseller, as the manager of a theatrical troupe.

A satisfactory life, he summed up—though undirected.

“Oh, yes,” we breathed. We gave him three stars.

 

Edith Pearlman’s fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Prize Collection, Best Short Stories from the South, and The Pushcart Prize Collection. She is the author of three story collections: Vaquita (1997), Love Among the Greats (2002), and How to Fall (2005).

 

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