What I write here of my experiences, I swear, is the truth.
The rest? I don't know. John Cordwell loved a story and, "a story," he always said, "is best told, tinkered, sar; yes sar. Tinkered!"
As I write it, I hear. John, in his Seventh Earl of Muffington voice. Of course, John Cordwell was not an Earl and there is no Muffington except in a foul tale or two, but being both very British and not-an-earl-of-anything was also part of the book of Cordwell: that special creation, his life, his tale, a tale he tinkered all the time. Not lying, you understand! Simply enhancing the experience of being John Cordwell for the credulous unenlighted.
Alright, the Red Lion is a bar. A pub. A red pin on the map of my life. I've gone steady with the place since I moved to Chicago from the east. That was in the 70s of the last century. I was a theater-head when I got here, a director, looking for stories and people to direct.
The Lion is on Lincoln Avenue, back then, a respectably seedy diagonal slant of Northside real estate. Booksellers, coffee shops, folk joints and blues clubs, vastly trendy, ultra-edgy record shops, places that gathered the shuffling, the sweaty, the muy hip and the giggly, the pop-girls with their shy smiles and belly buttons and all those who wanted to feed on them all...
And theaters. Lincoln Avenue wove through America's theater wonderland: Steppenwolf, Organic, St. Nicholas, Body Politic, Victory Garden. Oh it was the heyday, high water mark and Holy Golden Age of brash theatrical life and blood that was Chicago, once. Alas.
The area also had a reputation for the Weird.
Across from the Lion is the Biograph Theater. In 1934, Gentleman Johnny, John Dillinger, spent his last two earthly hours watching Manhattan Melodrama in there. When he walked onto Lincoln and into the Chicago night, he was blown into history by G-Man, Melvin Purvis.
It's said when the wind swirls from the west to make the shadows moan, Dillinger's ghost loiters by the brick wall at the alley where he fell, a scent of the Indiana fields on which he grew up, rising, drifting...
Well, I don't believe in ghosts. Didn't believe, anyway. Not in much of anything.
Then and now, the Red Lion Pub is bright white and rose red; two-and-a-half stories and a peaked roof. Built a few years after the Great Fire, the building is defiantly wooden, flammable as a soul. The place droops a bit in front and looks as though it would sag southward or lean to the north if were not flanked by a pair of solidly respectable -- and safely non-candescent -- Chicago redbrick businesses.
The year I came to town, the Lion was a natural watering hole for theater creatures such as I. Actors, you see, require beer and friendship. The Lion offered both. It is two floors of nooks, small rooms and shadowy coves where smoke hangs and dreams are smelted, shaped and sometimes, blessedly, forgotten. It is a place of low ceilings where narrow footpaths between stools and tables enforce cautious intimacy -- and require agility of foot and social grace to match.
The publican, John Cordwell, was... No, the temptation's strong, but I'll not say he was "Falstafian," though Cordwell did have charms in common with that other John, Sir John. Cordwell was a big man, standing well above 5-foot-4 and as much across! Like Sir John of the Histories, Cordwell had been, in his time, a warrior -- a pain in the ass to those he fought as well as the side he served -- an artisan, a lover, a teacher, a wise man and a rogue. He loved big things and beautiful women. He loved to shape lives and bring people together. He loved drink and art and words and buildings.
Yes, he loved buildings.
He'd been a prisoner of war during what he called the "last unpleasantry with the Hun." He escaped many times and was captured as many. As a result, he'd made a grand tour of Europe, trucked from one Nazi chateau to another, one escape-proof camp to the next.
One of these Bosch-sponsored road trips took him through Dresden. Seeing it between the slats of a cattle lorry,
Cordwell fell in love with the Rococo marvel and stone filigrees of that magical city, thought it quite the most beautiful manmade place on earth.
A few hours later the place was pounded to rubble. The RAF at night and the American 8th Air Force by daylight.
Like most British families, the Cordwells had been touched by war throughout the century. His grandfather was wounded at Gallipoli in the first round with the Hun -- though the wounding there was done by Johnny Turk. Two brothers were killed at Paschendale during one of the battles of the Somme...
John's brother was a London cab driver during the blitz. "The Blitz. The Blitz..." John said. "What we found of him was a metal button from his jacket..."
Understand, Cordwell was not a gentleman, not to the manor born. But in those days, to fly, to be given a plane and a command, one had to be an officer. To become an officer one had to be a gentleman. At least one had to be passed by a RAF Board of Review. Other officers. All gentlemen. Cordwell was determined to fly!
At his interview, he out-fustioned the board. When asked what he thought he might like to fly -- if he were allowed to fly -- Cordwell replied without hesitation, mustache quivering, "Oh bombers, sir, no question of it, heavy bombers! Hit the hun where it hurts, you know. Get this bally war over quick as that, eh?"
"Oh, Wizard," Cordwell, the inspector told him, "Jolly good. Take a letter, Miss Wren, Dear Adolph, might as well surrender now, Cordwell's flying heavy bombers..."
"Now that," John said years later in the pub he'd made on Lincoln Avenue, "THAT was Theatre!"
John survived the enemy, his own officers. He survived the theater of war, emerged with tales of captivity, tales of pigs as pets and being rabbits on the run. Oh it was Wizard fun, and he lived. It's what John did: he lived to tell it all!
He came home, became an architect, married an American, moved to Chicago, and built, built, built.
Then he made the Red Lion
When I came to Chicago from the east, the Lion was a nest for a burgeoning corps of actors who fancied themselves in the Shakespearian line.
Being an easterner, I considered Shakespeare -- the classics, in general -- to be my province, a place where scholarship and practical stagecraft merged. You see, I like the stuff. I don't feel it needs improvement, updating, to be made relevant....
Midwestern Shakespeareans, seemed all headbash and spit, rock'n'roll and rend your clothes... For them, it seemed less performance, more daylabor in an abattoir.
Shut up, Larry. The point is, I wasn't expecting much when I caught the first preview of The Tempest, the premiere work of this group calling themselves "Will's Jolly Crew." Performances on the Red Lion's roof garden, under the stars, beneath the spreading arms of Cordwell's ancient oak.
Cordwell, loved that tree. "It grounds the place, you know. Connects it to the whole world!" A word: This tree, this "ancient oak," is maybe not quite ancient, maybe not even an oak. It does seem to rise through the building. That gives it a bit of magic. It does spread its leafy canopy across the deck outside the second floor dining room. And that makes it very nice. From time to time, when nested birds shat upon his patron's fish and chips, John threatened to cut it down, but he never did. It remains. Being British, John was allowed his eccentricities.
For Tempest, the simple outdoor, nighttime setting -- under the tree -- was effective. Even so, I wasn't expecting much.
Alas, the production blew me away. Simply stated, the director stepped aside and let the play sing.
Despite the whimsical familiarity suggested by the company's name, the actors of Will's Jolly Crew knew their stuff.
By the end, I was in tears. I was weeping, in part, because the play always makes me cry. It's Shakespeare's last effort, his farewell to the world of magic he created over that short, extraordinary life. After this, he retired to Stratford, lived, a wealthy man, then, soon, died.
Even on the page, Prospero's final speech moves me. "Now my charms are all o'erthrown, And what strength I have's mine own -- which is most faint..."
The other reason I was bawling: I was facing the reality that these people were good! At least as good as I. Better, maybe. Oh, feh! It is true: In theater no one is happy unless A) He's on top, AND B) his best friend's in the dump. These weren't even my best friends.
I was staring at the empty playing space and blunting my sorrows with a fourth pint of bitter when I noticed that another audient, also still seated on the now empty deck, had joined me in tears.
He was an anti-me: I was young. He was not. I am tall. He was tiny. I am... Very well, I am heavyset... He was not, no not a bit. I am fully furred -- haired, bearded, et al. He was not, no not at all; he was naked as a new rat.
We were both sucking the dregs of Cordwell's thin bitter English beer, though, and we both shed salt tears. I, for the end of magic and the butt-end of my dream kicking me in the ego nuts. He, for whatever reasons old men have to sob in the night. We both stared at the stage, though.
The director's dad, I thought, and gathered my things to leave.
I was heading toward the aisle when, around me, the lights went out. From behind, where the little guy was still seated alone, there came a glow... The light was cold, oh, so cold, but it cast my shadow across the seats and into the gnarled branches of the tree. I froze. Turned.
Four pints in three hours do nothing, I repeat, nothing, to my head, my heart, my soul or eyesight. They also do not, can not, will not make little old men incandesce in summer night.
Maybe I squeaked or sounded one of the seven or eight queeps or whimpers actors have told me I make when I suffer and hide it from them...but the old guy jumped and gave me a look as though I were a avalanche come down on him.
"Ach!" he said. And he fluttered out like a candle in the wind. The scent of something smokey wafted toward me in the sudden dark.
"I do apologice for dat," he said. His accent? European. Northern. German, perhaps, or somewhere east of that. He turned toward the dark stage again. "Yes. For dat, I do apologice."
"No problem," I said, or other words. I wasn't paying much attention to me at the moment.
"Dis iss a most remarkable..." He thought for a moment, as though seeking the word to describe what we'd both experienced over the past two hours. "A most egzeptional..." He was still thinking.
"Play?" I ventured.
"A most remarkable Trans. Fig. U. Ration." He was proud of that English word, savoring its parts, his smile broadening at each phoneme.
"Transfiguration. Good way to put it," I said. It never hurts to humor the gallery. "Transfiguration...it's what an actor does..."
I swear: he glimmered when I spoke this minor flattery. Glimmered! He pulsed, once, twice, three times, then another, then went out.
"I dank you, so wery much," he said. He had a broad smile. I saw no teeth, but something glistened in the dark of his mouth. I didn't look again.
"I dank you, greatly, but no, no. That? That
little shadow show? No, no. Not dat. Dat vasss... " He shrugged his shoulders,
squinted his eyes. "Dat vas, ah, well. Delightful, but no. I mean dis..."
He gestured around us... "Dis wholeness I mean. Dis. Dis whole place..."
His little arms carried me in their short sweep. I took in the roof, the dark tree and stage, the restaurant at our backs, the bar below...all the place, all the times I'd had there, maybe all that was to come in the dark, ahead of me down the years, down the years to...
No. Alright. The whole place was gathered by his one simple gesture, gathered and stuffed right into my heart!
God, I wished I had had HIM for Mephistopheles in my Minneapolis Faustus and not Rick Bloody Bolig! Jesus, I thought!
When I returned from my mental visit to the Twin Cities, he was smiling. He was nodding.
"Yez?" He had come to a decision. "I see you see it, too. What Cord-vell has fabricated here." He spit out John's name and slobbered on it as he vocalized. "Ah. Ach..." His annoyance grew. "Ach, ach, ach, achachach..." His "achs" fluttered into a wheezy pizzicato back-throat growl, as though he had a hairball. When he finished he sighed and drained his pint. "I cannot see Mizter Cordwell. Cannot see Cordwell. No. Not tonight."
He turned to me. "You vill. For me. You shall give him thiz ding..."
He handed me a wooden box. It was the length and a half of an index finger, two-fingers wide, one deep. "You vill tell him, John Cordwell, dat diz ding no longer shtands between uz, diz ding you hold? Yez? Yez you will."
My mouth was hanging open. I shut it and said, "I?"
"Yez. You." he said.
"I may not see John. Uh Cordwell. I may not see him. Tonight. I hadn't planned to."
During my babble, the little man had gathered his things. His coat, umbrella, his Marshall Fields bags. He walked toward the stage. "Ya, ya, ya, ya, yayayaya. You vill. You say it now...wiz me. 'Diz ding....'"
"Yez wery gut. 'Diz ding...'" He pointed with his chin at the box he'd given me... "no longer shtands between uz...'"
"Yes. This thing..." I waved the box. "No longer shtands between us."
He looked at me as though I were a very bright puppy.
"Yez. You go now. He vill be dere. Turn 'round so you do not see me go. Go on."
And I did, and he must have gone. There was a rustling of the leaves and a cool breeze breathed across the back of my neck.
The next thing? The el was passing a block away and I was the only one on the dark roof under the sky.
Between the roof deck and downstairs, the little guy sort of drained out of me. It wasn't natural, I know, but the Red Lion was like that. Not natural. I told you. The place has a reputation. There were stories, stories I never credited...
Okay. The joint's haunted. Not that I believe that. Not that I believed that. But stories had it, and in my business, story is everything! Alright. The little guy had slipped down the tree and flowed into the world. Something. And time had shifted and the first I was aware of actually walking from one place to another, from the rooftop stage to the bar downstairs, was when I was halfway down the steps, on the landing in the narrow stairwell. Okay?
The stairwell is a funny place. On a ledge above and facing me was a wooden shield. On it was carved the face of a lion. The ceiling was twelve, fifteen feet high. Overhead, a fan turned slowly, stirring the shadows. Pictures of the queen, other pictures, lined the wall. The shadows licked them.
Dark evenings, and this was a dark evening, going up or down this slender stairway can be...delicate. When he opened the place, Cordwell had hung a plaque to his father's memory on the wall beneath the lion's head. It's still there. Tonight the plaque seemed to glow in the dim ambient light from below and the hazy light that filtered from a high window. Father Cordwell had died many years ago in London. His grave there remained unmarked. John had made this place in America his memorial, in part, because his dad had loved pubs. Loved the life and the spirit of them.
The plaque seems to have opened something. So the story goes, and since that time, the Lion had gotten a reputation: The most haunted bar in Chicago. That was saying something. This is a haunted city.
Okay. I don't believe any of this. The little guy was probably some old Polish pal of Cordwell's from the old country. On the dark steps, I shivered and scooted to the light and warmth below.
I did not want to stay. Actors were mingling. Actors love that. Pour down compliments, toss off the sweat. Sharing loudly. Being seen. Feeling, in equal measures, for the compliment in return, the put down, the next gig.
I hate that. It was all too clear a memory from my days as an actor. I shivered again.
Tonight was a triumph for the Jolly Crew. Tomorrow would be the day after. This Shakespeare on the roof, grand fun, yes, but it was all Equity waivers stuff. All for free! The rent would still come due, and would be paid for by the next McDonald's ad; the haircuts, headshots and resumes, the food, the beer, the shrinkage would all be courtesy of the next chorus boy stint -- "O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A" at Pheasant Run Dinner Theater. If they were lucky.
Tonight, though, they ruled the world and I didn't want to hang around. If the play had been a crock, I would have made nice with Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, Miranda. I would have mingled, angled, wheedled... Worked my wiles, gotten next to the producer, made myself known...
The play had not been a crock. It had been sublime. Even Trinculo and his pal...whatshisname?...they'd been exquisite!
Then I heard John. Intoning. "I learned you see," he was saying to Caliban, "Your moral tale must be wrapped in a good song. You know that. A good song and a funny story! Shakespeare knew it, by God. And that's why we love it all. Why we love to cry with him! Why we learn from him." He leaned toward Caliban and dropped his voice to a stage whisper audible in Kankakee, "This thing tonight, now. Tempest! It's just the politics of old age, you know. That and some other stuff. A bit about education. All wrapped in magic and love and a good song and dance. Yes? Yes!" That was John.
Alright, I said to myself. I'll hand over "diz ding" and be off. Off and find another career. Another life. Somewhere else. Further west.
I oozed between the bodies and slipped between Cordwell and several street bunnies who seemed unable to stop touching Ferdinand with their noses.
Colin, Cordwell's son, was behind the bar. The world's best bartender. He juggled jokes, gags, patter, banter, orders to the waitress, balancing laughter and business as only a great publican -- and the son of a great publican -- can do. He was -- is -- brilliant at the art.
I ordered another pint. Got it. And placed the little wooden box on the bar.
At the first lull, I ah-hemmed John and leaned my face in his direction.
"Ah. He said, turning. What'd you think?"
I thought. I believe...believed...that it is never good simply to love something. Such love always must be tempered with thought. Especially, I hated having loved this production.
"It sagged a bit at the top." I said. "Such a great storm. Then the first island scene..."
"Yes. Well, yes!" Cordwell said... "It's all that stuff. Then it gets into it and, by God..."
"Yes. It sang." I said.
"Ha!" he said. "Yes. It sang. Good."
I took the moment to hand him the box. "This. It's from a friend of yours. He was at the show. Said he had to leave and could I give it to you. He left. I've given it to you."
Cordwell turned the box over and over. His vast nose went wrinkled. His eyes squinted. His hands were large, beefy, and the box looked small, turning in them.
When I sucked down my pint and made moves to leave Cordwell stopped me.
"You have any idea what's in here?" he asked, "Any idea at all?" He waved the unopened box under my nose. It was as though he knew I knew JUST what was in there and, by God, sir, he wouldn't have it. No, sir. Not here!
"Confounded damned Bavarian bureaucrat!" He tipped his head back and looked along the hump of his nose at the box.
Then I remembered my line. "Oh. He said to tell you, 'This thing no longer stands between you.' He said it with an accent, but that's more or less..."
"Yes, yes, yes..." Cordwell was slipping into fustian mode -- as he must have with the RAF officers board, more British than God, donchaknow, and all that.
"Let me show you, young man..." So saying, he opened the box. Inside, a metal something gleamed in the barlight. The place grew quiet. The noise of the actors, their fans, friends and dreams seemed to withdraw.
Alright, not really, but like it does in the movies. Inside, nested on a piece of khaki cloth was a bullet. It looked newly cast and polished, yet somehow I knew it was from the war, the Second War, as John called it, World War II.
"Huh," I said. Or something like that. I wasn't paying attention to me again.
Cordwell picked up the thing gingerly, from point to cap, between his thumb and middle finger. He held it as though it were of vast importance and very fragile.
He turned to me and the shell casing caught a glint of warm light from the lamp on the end of the bar. Its spark flashed in John's eye.
"The nerve of the fellow," he said, and I believe he smiled. His dudgeon had softened in the light of the gleaming cartridge. "He wasn't even supposed to be there, you know? You know that, don't you?" There was a silence as Cordwell turned the thing around in his hand, hefted it, gauged its weight, looked at it point-on, then from its rear. "He was just a substitute. Making do because it was wartime. Damn the fellow anyway. It's his fault."
He sat the bullet point up on the bar.
"You do know, don't you, what this damned thing is, eh?" He was speaking for the sake of speaking. Speaking to
me because I was there, not because I was important to him or the tale he was about to spin.
Because I was there, I answered. "A bullet," I ventured.
"Right you are..." There was more expected of me...
"I'd say..." I guessed, "Thirty caliber...?"
Cordwell hefted it again. "Caliber? Thirty. Yes..." He knew he wasn't going to get a savy answer from me. "I'll tell you a story," he said and put the shell, slug-up, on the bar. "Colin..."
Cordwell ordered a quarter-gill of Irish Whiskey and sat it next to his pint of Watneys. He flicked both ends of his moustache with the knuckle of his right index-finger then bolted down the measure of whiskey. "There," he said.
He was winding up for a good one.
"That bullet," he said pointing at it with his chin, "is my bullet. Mine. Meant for me, there." He touched himself over his heart. "See..." he pointed to the markings along the shell casing. "That, sir, is me. My number... Go on. Have a look."
I shoved my eyeglasses an inch or so from the round. There was a number. Engraved in fine lines on the brass. I could read it and as I did Cordwell spoke it aloud.
"That's a thing one doesn't forget. Ones number! The one that when it's up, it's bloody well up! Don't care how old you are, what war you were in. You carry that forever." He tapped his chest again. "You turn out Beowulf's crew from the grave and ask their rowing numbers and by the Lord Harry, they'd know, 'em. Remember 'em to the man. To the man!"
He turned the bullet again. Again the light caught his eye. "One's number."
He repeated his number again. I'll not repeat it here.
"Beginning of the war: everything was a shambles, I can tell you. Not enough of anything: of men, weapons, ammunition, supplies. Everyone a bit of shy about who does what to whom. Well, the very same was true of the Small World."
That's the way he put it, as though anyone would know instantly what he meant, "the Small World." I crunched my nose a bit and must have looked confused.
"Let me put it this way," he said. "The wee-people as the Irish have it...the kingdom...Faerie...the glamour world, don't you know? They're no more ready for war than the mob is. At the beginning it's all rush, rush, and never a by-your-leave. Things have to be done and they are. Not well sometimes, sometimes bloody badly...but they get acted upon."
I took a long sip and found the glass empty. A full one sat next to it.
"Take for instance the Hampden bomber. Damn fine ship. That's what I flew. Hampdens. Four man crew, tight little piece. Kept loosing them. Long narrow tail had a bad way of falling off when it got hit with too much at one time. Well, that's war. Mind you, now, they were a bit elderly. Came along in the 30s. A grandfather of a plane, you might say." He smiled and licked his lips.
"And...now this is a thing! They looked just like one of Jerry's! Yes. The damned Dornier, the Do.17. Our own chaps kept shooting us down. Bloody embarrassing. 'Anything to report, flying officer?' 'Oh, I say sir, either I topped one of Adolph's 17's or, by God, punched Old Reggie's mess ticket.' 'Ah, bad show...'"
Cordwell did that, burst into playlets. He was pretty good.
"So there we were. We flew at night, you know. Yes. And this was early in the war. I was an 'Observer.' It was November. November 7, 1941. We were over Belgium. Yes, we were going to bomb, but first we had to fly this long-wide triangle between the Paix de Callais and two other checkpoints. We were there principally to draw Jerry fighters and ack-ack -- that's anti aircraft to you yanks -- from our bombers flying the main show into Berlin that night.
He squinted at me as though I'd sneered at the word. "Now let me tell you, sir: 'observer!' Observer was a term left from the First War. Not to brag but the observer, is the busiest man in the crew."
He started ticking off his jobs. "He's co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, nose gunner...and if there was time he brewed the tea. What have you.
"Sort of the stage manager," I ventured. Cordwell looked at me for a moment, then smiled. He tapped my pint with the rim of his.
"Exactly! Alright. During approach, my station was in the nose. Picture this: I am squatting in a perspex bubble. I see myself reflected on this curved surface around me..." He reached his hand out to show, as though he could touch his refelction from half century past. "Below is the ground...ahead, the night...all around you...you're surrounded by whatever is trying to kill you: Fighters, flak, birds!" He laughed then became serious. "No joke," he said and paused long enough to let me know there was another tale THERE.
"Old Tony Gordon, was the pilot, his canopy was above and behind me. There was a top gunner-slash-radio operator and behind it all, the tail gunner.
"Now, we were on the landward line of our triangle, over Belgium, still carrying a full bomb load. A flight of Wellington's goes over on its way to the show. 'Ta, loves. Good luck. Give 'em a bit for us...' and then..." Cordwell's mouth and eyes froze, wide open...
"Then one of our lads drops down...fighter support for the Welly's, you know...and he has a go at us! Well, suddenly it's not so funny, eh? Shot at by one of your own!
"We did a few light and fancys, he flipped a few up our tail, then was gone. Reckon he'd figured out we were the good guys and fled to avoid embarrassment and vile language.
"That...or as I found out later, he'd run out of ammo!"
He said this waving the gleaming cartridge in the air. "Well, after we evaded him, we got caught in a cross-fire from two ack-ack batteries. A batch of spotlights had us fixed, so Tony dropped to the deck and there we were."
He looked at me. "Been to Belgium?" I shook my head.
"Bloody country's like Kentucky. Flat as the prairie, then you're in the mountains. Point is, we ran out of prairie and a hill tore our tail off.
"Okay. We crashed. Fiery mess. The tail broke off and the plane tore itself to pieces for a half mile down a valley before going nose first into a hill. We survived.
"Tony dragged himself out, then helped the other two. Tailgunner was injured so badly, the Germans repatriated him. Imagine that. Well, as I said, it was early in the war.
"There's no good reason why I survived. I was jammed in the front, the plane was on fire, everything was a twisted mess and unexploded bombs. I had no idea where I was, how to get out. And Tony, bless him, Tony climbed back on the burning wing and, I swear it, he talked me out. By the time he'd gotten me to where he could grab hold of me, the plane was about to blow. Still had our bombs, you know... Then we were out and running and then we fell and turned and it blew...
"On my knees watching it all. 'Am I dead...?' I asked? 'Not if I'm not,' Tony said.
At that point Cordwell looked at me.
"Wow," I said.
"Yes." He said. "'Wow,' indeed!" he said. "Now here's the thing: You see, I wasn't supposed to have been there."
"You don't understand at the time, but later you find. That damned little Bavarian Bureaucrat! I was supposed to have been killed. Earlier. By our side. Our lad was supposed to have put THIS bullet in me." He held up the .30 caliber round again."
"Colin," I said, loudly. "Another..."
"Here. On me..." Cordwell rose and went behind the bar. He tapped us both a long draught of bitter.
"Tony...I reckon...was supposed to have gotten out. Gotten away. Gone back to England, escaped, maybe. But I was alive in there and he came back for me.
"We were taken to a Luftwaffe HQ, nightfighter squadron. Big stone chalet. I came into this large room. Pleasant place, I thought, warm, other pilots -- German of course, but so what. They were sipping beer and eating apples, and there across the room -- I looked -- stood this shredded fellow, all strips of skin and burned flesh. Shredded flight suit, still smoking. 'Poor bugger,' I thought, then, 'By God,' I said, 'By God that's me.' And it was. A mirror.
"Quick as you please, those Jerrys, those pilots, took a look, came over, and they carried me to their table. Gave me beer and harvest apples. It was November, you know."
He leaned on the bar and turned the bullet in his hand.
"...they cradled me in their eight arms and carried me to the fire. They gave me beer and harvest apples and talked to me kindly. And I realized, 'I like these fellows...'" He didn't finish.
"It was after the war, I heard from..." he jerked his head toward the upstairs. "From our friend. He wrote to me, if you can imagine. A long letter. He apologized. Said he'd been on temporary assignment; transferred from the east. I never asked him from where. He'd been in charge of a draft of his folk whose job it was to 'write the history' of the war. 'Write the history!' By which he meant that it was their job to write the numbers on the shells that..." He made a vague, very un-Cordwell gesture... "...the shells that had our numbers on them.
"Our little friend was the manager, the superintendent, Gruppenfuhrer, whatever they called 'em -- you wouldn't believe the bureaucracy of Faerie anyroad, he was in charge of a whole passel of the little people...from all parts of everywhere at the beginning of the war, keep up with the demand, donchaknow. Takes skill, I have heard -- from him, of course -- to tinker together that sort of an operation. Supply blokes, craftsmen, dogsbodies, shipping clerks...a huge operation and put together overnight. Even THEY don't work that quickly..."
He looked me in the eye. I think he was daring me to snicker. "I mean it," he said.
"He wanted to rectify an error. You see? My number had been on a cartridge. That cartridge was intended for a plane that was to have shot me, personally, through the chest -- he described just where on my person it was to have entered, what damage it was to have done, where it was to have exited -- that night...one of ours!" He touched himself again. In that spot. "I was, you see, officially dead.
"He bungled it. The shipment never went out, or it ended in the wrong theater of war, in a warehouse somewhere, something. The point is...this slug and my heart never met...and that luckless fighter bastard who'd had at us over Belgium...he ran out of ammo. Like that. Like this..." He placed it on the bar. We both stared at it.
"His bookkeeping was off. It drove him mad. He kept following me, all through the war, trying to find me all through everything... I was a pretty active prisoner, I guess you've heard. Something of an escape artist. So he kept missing me, camp to camp.." He starred at my eyes again. "Dresden! You know? Missed me by thirteen hours! I'd been there and gone"
"You mean Dresden was bombed...?" I started to say it. Then I decided not to.
"Yes. I do. Dresden! It was one of the reasons I went back into architecture after the war. After I found out. I wasn't going to, you know, but it seemed as though I owed it. Somehow."
"Drink?" he said. "This one on you?"
I nodded. I paid. He poured. We drank.
"He's been following. Through the 50s, 60s... He keeps suggesting that things would be better for all concerned, if I were to let that bullet find its proper place. Something about the rules. History. Time. The way thing are supposed to be. "Rot, I say. Petty bureaucratic rot. Just need to have their paperwork balance. You know, I could tell a tale... But I won't."
He drank off the pint. "I think I've done damned well for a dead man. Eh? A man who should be dead, anyway. Which, according to him, is the same thing."
"Now that is a true story," he said.
And I didn't doubt it. I didn't tell Cordwell that night but the little man seemed to have come to appreciate that missed delivery over Belgium. I think he had liked the play. Maybe had liked the night and the roof and the place, the Lion and the street and the... Oh for cripes sake.
Still. I wanted to say so to Cordwell the next day, wanted to tell him the little man seemed at ease with his mistake. But I didn't.
Later, after John died, I told Colin. Colin is now the Eighth Earl of Muffington, but only behind the bar. He has the bullet but doesn't look at it much. He knew his father.
Oh, the Shakespeare Company that nested for a while in John's bar, under John's tree? We're doing fine, just fine, thank you very much.
Copyright © 2000 Lawrence Santoro