That warm night in Florida. A rented house on a deserted suburban street. Moonlight picks out curdling clouds across the sky; a street lamp adds a few yards of vanilla. Nothing has to happen. A night-light shines at an upstairs window, where Bram strikes a match to light a small cigar. The matchhead flares. Under cover of this flare, let us switch to his side of the street. The flame settles. Bram makes the end of the cigar go red. Here he could be any foreigner: middle-aged, overweight, hair turning grey. At home he is Bram Vandenberghe, the lawyer, with a chancellery and a pool of secretaries.
Bram quietly spits out a loose wisp of tobacco. In the hope that leaning out of the window may cut down the sound of Steen’s grunts and snores, he looks at the cracked path, the dry lawn. The moonlight has changed the daytime grey of the roadway to another, bluer grey; it chalks away at the trunk of a birch on the lawn opposite. Too bad the Chevrolet has gone. The sight of it would have completed the scene: moonlight pointing up the chrome appointments of an early-model Chevrolet. But the owner prized it too much for Bram to make a deal.
Steen’s snores grow, reaching false peaks. Like a buffalo from a zoo. He acted the buffalo all day; arguing with those Walloons they should never have got involved with; now his buffalo snores are keeping Bram awake.
Bram consults the time on the display of his mobile phone and calls Brussels to speak to Wouters, his former business partner and sometimes confidant. He tells him first about the Chevrolet. Wouters says forget the Chevrolet, fly home. Bram points the phone into the room for a moment. Did you hear that? he says, those grunts are Mr Steen De Vos, who’s been no help at all in the negotiations: Steen took a sledgehammer to a walnut and missed by a mile. You never should have taken him, says Wouters. Bram imagines Wouters scratching his beard. Bram, forget your million dollars, they’re out of reach, come home. Bram says he’ll give the affair one more day.
He calls Arne, the drummer in his amateur band. Arne has a recorded message in English. Here is the news. The Flemish have declared independence; King Albert has fled to the Congo; all underground trains in the city now stop at the frontier—yes this is Brussels, city on the Senne, home to the surreal and the inventor of the saxophone, and Arne Pieters. Before you leave me your message, a solo for saxophone and geraniums, played to you by Luz Cools.
Exasperating Arne. Exasperating but lovable. Bram clicks off. He takes a last draw on the fine-leaf tobacco and exhales gently, still wishing the car was standing before the house. In its driftwood grey, 1953 glory. He calls Margaux. What you hear is my pet buffalo, he tells her. Margaux has to leave for work at the chancellery. He tells her he loves her and switches off the phone.
A short breeze pulls aside the smoke of the cigar. Bram contemplates the planned resumption of talks at the Everglades the next day. Too bad about the Chevrolet. He enjoys the breeze, the cigar, the ease of being able to stand in shorts at a window in the night.
Grey road, vanilla lamp, chalk tree. Bram taps away a cylinder of ash. No, nothing has to happen. No car drives by. Nothing blows in the street. No animal shows. If there was a sound, he wouldn’t hear it for the snores.
Hands on their holsters, police arrive on foot from both sides of the house. Bram calls to Steen, but Steen snores on.
He stubs out his cigar and goes to the door.
Seven months after Bram was detained in just his T-shirt and shorts, charged, prosecuted by his fellow-lawyer Assistant Attorney Lewis J. Lewis for alleged threats to extort property and harm individuals and their children, and duly sentenced to thirty-seven months in jail, Wouters, just in time, was the last to pass through the entrance in the rue Defacqz, the last to press the buzzer to the Vandenberghe chancellery offices, cross the courtyard with its red geraniums, last to pass the showcase Harley-Davidson in the hall to shake hands with Arne, Luz, Margaux—and with Gary who smiled wry smiles sat at a table beside a heap of musical instrument cases. Bram’s band must have been practising. Wouters had arrived just before the phone call from Bram was due—on his fiftieth birthday Bram was to call from Miami. At first they stood in a ring, holding flutes of champagne, Gary on water, Margaux dwarfed by him and Wouters. Despite Gary the American being present, hatred of America laced the air; the only aspect of the United States to emerge still shining were its Harley bikes and inimitable guitars, most notably—remarked Arne to Gary as the guitar player—a Fender Stratocaster constructed the year Bram was born. This prompted Gary to head for the toilet. Wouters guessed Gary was overwhelmed by Bram, the situation, the attention on his wealth. Bram owned several Strats, Gary one second-hand guitar. Bram had Rickenbackers, Martins and Gibsons. Always he wanted more. As one of the band said, he would fly the Atlantic to snap up another beauty the way most people cross the road for a newspaper.
Gary was in the kitchen filling his glass from the tap.
I’m not a worshipper, he said to Wouters. Are you a worshipper?
An admirer, Wouters said. I’ve known Bram a very long time. He’s a generous man.
Generosity is a strategy, said Gary. Astrategy so you can’t be critical. He’s a cult. A cult?
Make yourself a cult and no one—
What’s that? Wouters said.
The lights just went out, said Gary.
Too many French cooking dinner tonight, said Wouters. Mind those glasses. Those small debtors tricked into debt, Gary went on. Poor wretches. The Vandenberghe empire built on their backs. It’s his birthday.
It’s always something. Let’s go back in there.
In the main office Arne was waving his lighter and Margaux handing him a candelabra. Huge shadows of little Arne danced against a wall. Needing both hands for his drink and another cigarette, he passed the candelabra to Wouters, who placed it carefully on the chancellery table.
Let us go and sit there, following the light. Beside it Wouters has lost himself in the moment. He sits and ponders, uneasy at everything, Bram in Texas, Gary, even Arne’s message, which has sat in his head too and like a fly in a room just won’t go away. This is Brussels, home to—
In the next room the phone rang.
Arne picked it up, the first to congratulate Bram. Waiting their sixty-second turns to speak, Gary moved in and out of the shadows, Luz studied the mouthpiece of his saxophone. Margaux asked if anyone knew about the campaign in Brussels to plant sunflowers, then brought in some small savouries. Wouters himself sifted through the pile of documents—letters, laws, transcripts of proceedings—which Arne had assembled and now covered the great chancellery table.
Arne, sounding solicitous, could be heard talking to Bram. Having gone to Florida to recoup the million dollars owed to him—Margaux with a candle in a silver candlestick was explaining to Gary—Bram had been lured into a trap and the US authorities had done the rest. The plan had been to use the money to pay the last instalment on his yacht and sail back across the Atlantic. It backfired, said Gary flatly.
Now Luz was on the phone, his saxophone clipped to its strap round his neck. Margaux went to get more sparkling wine, leaving Wouters with Gary and Arne. Gary delivered another tirade.
You may be able to fool half of Brussels about Bram—the Flemish half, he said jokily. But take a dozen good people looking in from the outside and they aren’t fooled.
You’ve said enough, Arne said, we’re already in the midst of a tornado. Yes, Wouters agreed and Gary shrugged and then nodded, there was something of a tornado to the whole affair. Wouters decided to be the quiet eye: it was a night for stroking his beard and listening.
He relieved Luz on the phone. Happy birthday, Bram. Bram was quiet, friendly. They confined their talk to pleasantries. Bram was eating better, learning Spanish from a cell mate. Wouters handed on the phone to Margaux.
Back in the big room Gary had turned on Arne for having corralled the band into greeting Bram on his birthday instead of playing more in the basement. Think human, Arne replied. Gary shrugged and walked off. Arne was tense, Margaux through the doorway was ill at ease—how, wondered Wouters, were things between her and Bram? He heard her talking on some legal point to him. Goaded by Arne, Luz went back in with his saxophone and improvised some bars looking through the window at some tulips. Gary was talking to a print on the wall, Luz came back dabbing a sore lip where his mouthpiece hurt. Again Arne diatribed against the US system of justice. Again Gary shrugged, Luz packed away his instrument, while Margaux, Wouters could see, had put her weight awkwardly on one foot and kept looking at her watch, counting the time gone on the phone call. Oop, the lights are back on, she said as the power returned. Wouters got up and walked back to the room with the phone. Margaux pressed a key so that Bram could be heard. Yes, we had a power cut. But what about you? Things should be better soon, I may be able to get books, better food; as long as I get to Greendale, they have muesli there. Muesli? You hate muesli. I’ll pass you on: here’s Wouters again, we call him Wouters too. Yes he still has his beard. Wouters pressed the button on the phone to give Bram back his privacy. Margaux’s fine, always smiling, he said watching, as he phoned, how Arne smoked and smoked, putting his head back to blow the smoke above people’s heads, and was never far from Margaux. Arne and Margaux were identical heights. Here’s Gary, Bram, and I’m going to press the button again so we all get to hear. Gary? Jesus, Bram, I don’t know what to say: happy birthday. Thanks, Gary, have you got rid of those crappy foot pedals? No? And stop listening to that country shit. What country shit? Bram? Bram? The line’s dead. At least everyone got to speak, said Margaux.
Arne, Margaux. Wouters had guessed. Arne and Margaux.
The lights stayed on; then died. Arne immediately flipped his lighter in the dark, chest high, putting him for a short moment in the softest of spotlights.
Arne’s solicitousness towards Bram and Margaux had almost no boundaries, least of all a boundary at Margaux herself. Regularly writing to Bram, Arne got replies saying he was at Alachua County jail, then Dade State Detention Centre, then Miami SDC. At Miami Bram had a cell with just a hole in the metal roof, the sky through the hole grey like in Brussels; then a cell with a bible and a pencil with no point and no chance of sharpening it. A final roundabout of transfers took him to Greendale Detention Centre in Louisiana, in the flat prairie south of the Red River. Here Bram had the same old soaps and wrestling on TV, but could see the sky more and the horizon through some barbed wire. People could send him press cuttings. Arne sent reports on Anderlecht’s football games and Brussels goings-on, the campaign for sunflowers; more of his jape that the Flemish had declared independence— phone calls between the two communities were now being charged as calls abroad. Arne might be pictured sealing his letters and handing Margaux the envelopes to put with the chancellery post; Arne checking the sofa to make sure it looked like it had been slept on in case Wouters or Gary called by; using the bathroom but without daring to try the Lionel Jadot marble bath, and joining Margaux beneath the covers.
By necessity, Arne’s solicitousness stopped short of visiting Greendale. How could he go with Margaux and Wouters? At the last minute Gary joined them. Wouters looked forward to the open spaces and sun. Light he could receive and spread. Follow the light, he thought to himself like a motto. Meanwhile Gary—as their one American, for once looked on favourably— said he’d come if they took in the local scenery too.
They flew to Houston and drove a rented Ford eastwards. Gary unexpectedly sprang to life. Do you know what I’m going to do right now? he said. I’m going to call Arne. You’re right there, Brussels, city of bicycles with tyres like string but big on perfume, home to the inventor of the saxophone and me, Arne Pieters. Before leaving your message, here is Luz Cools… Nope, said Gary, not there.
Wouters decided the best approach was to let things take their course. When Gary insisted they stop in Beaumont and see if any waitresses they met were called Sylvia, Wouters agreed, let’s stop in Beaumont and see if any waitresses are called Sylvia. They saw none. You lose some, Gary said, others you don’t win. Gary had a tape. We used to drive through Lafayette, sang Lucinda Williams, and Baton Rouge. They drove through Lake Charles and Baton Rouge. To please Gary they drove over bayous looking like canals; crossed miles of bridge across Lake Ponchartrain. They picnicked on peanuts and yoghurt at a cemetery where lumps of concrete were dollopped on the graves and Spanish moss grew thickly.
Finally, with Margaux driving, swinging north towards the Red River on highway 165, a straight flat road, they talked through the visit they were about to make. Only five visitors per visit; ten visits a month. Wouters would go first, then Gary, and last of all Margaux. They would enquire about returning for a second visit. Gary lit a joint but no one would join him. I have to consume this, he said. If they search us on the car park we can get twenty years in jail. In a yellow El Camino, he sang along, listening to Howlin Wolf.
On the treeless plain a plantation of sugar cane went on and on and on. Bram has a BOP register number, said Gary after a while from the back seat, so he’s registered to bop. I have all the documents: the astonishing documents. Listen. You can only embrace him at the beginning and end of the visit. That’s more than all right with me. Anyone who has mace with them must leave it in a locker. No khaki clothes. No see-through clothing. Do you hear, Wouters? No sleeveless blouses. And, I quote from these regulations: no excessively loose fitting, sagging, dragging apparel which may appear associated with any gang. Marge? You got that? Shut up Gary, Wouters intervened.
That’s it for the dress code. We don’t have babies with us, we can skip that part. There are just dozens of rules. But you know what has no rules?—what you say. What you say, he repeated. You can’t show any cleavage but you can say all kinds of things. You can put into words whatever a cleavage might have said. If you want to, Marge. And you can try speaking Walloons.
You can try that. Flemish too. See if it gets us somewhere. Of course it might put everyone in a spin.
Pull up at that diner, Wouters said to Margaux. We can leave him here.
Gary sat in a red-upholstered booth with an unlit cigarette and waved goodbye as Wouters, the last to leave, tossed him a booklet of matches— passing on the light—and walked through the door. Gary picked up the matches where they’d slid to the floor. He lit the cigarette. This is what happens, he said quietly to the ashtray and the napkin dispenser, when you start out taking a short trip to Europe, happening to go to Brussels, because of Magritte or a song by Jacques Brel, meeting the girl of a lifetime, breaking up, sticking to your job. Hum, he said, and pulled the ashtray closer. Hum, he said to the young waitress with a badge saying Rachel. Hi hum, what’s it to be? Hi Rachel. Hi there. What’s it to be. Listen to this, Rachel. Well okay, but make it short. One day out of the blue a guy you play music with goes to jail and has to stay away from Brussels, which is built on a swamp, to go somewhere else built on a swamp. So, hum.
Yeah. Hum. Is that Brussels, Wisconsin? Gary reflected.
Maybe, he said. Maybe it is. You ever know anyone in jail, Rachel?
Well, there was someone I met called Ron, Ron Chambers, so it isn’t totally new to me, not totally. What’s it to be?
You know what people on death row like at their last meal? Mostly, they don’t want breakfast.
I can sort of understand that.
Now you take a mass murderer, what’s he likely to want? Ice cream?
Ice cream, right first time. And lots of it. I understand mint chocolate chip is very popular.
Well it is—certainly it’s highly popular round here, whoops. So you won’t be wanting ice cream?
I will not. Coffee. It’s to be coffee with cream. Rachel, this is what they call winding up somewhere. But where isn’t somewhere to wind up? Who isn’t ever far from a whirlwind, about to be picked up and set down somewhere. Do you ever get tornadoes round here?
Three days later I was still here, waiting for them (the gang, I say to Rachel, but I’m kidding) to pick me up on the way back. She isn’t fooled into thinking I’m some gangster. Rachel talks to me. She asks me what will become of Bram and I’m not sitting here with this coffee and a cigarette aiming to disappoint her. I’ll tell her.
I say to her: nothing had to happen, but it did. In contrast to Steen, who didn’t marshal much of a defence, Bram got transferred back to Belgium. (Rachel and I had cleared up the point about Brussels in the meantime.) He spent fifteen months with a night-time lock-up at St Gilles prison, convenient for the rue Defacqz. When he came out properly, you can imagine, Arne the-smouldering-one burst into flames and fell in the Senne, that river of Brussels piped underground but surfacing for the Anderlecht storm overflow, which is where he died through a combination of excessive drinking and a rucksackful of tablets. Bram put his name to a book on guitars, a lavish production and not many buyers. Wouters finally got together with Margaux, a fine match. Luz achieved faint but pleasing fame in old age, when no one in Brussels could play the saxophone as he could, inventing a fine solo to anything. I’m guessing. Bram created this whirlwind which swept up all kinds of things. It built with a roar like a train, until eventually it dumped me at this diner, where I’ve been ever since, sitting opposite my very special waitress, Rachel, hearing this like a tune in my head, composing what to say in case anyone should ask me.