Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Afterword

The moon is setting over my computer.

My office window faces due west, and at the moment -- 5:55 A.M. Arizona time -- a brilliant full moon is hanging in the sky out that window.  Looking at that moon over the top edge of the monitor, I can't help but be fascinated by the eerily perfect shape, the mottled cream and grey coloring, the slow but steady descent.  In a few minutes it will be gone.  The rising sun is already lighting the landscape:  The trees in my yard, the rock wall along the driveway, the side of my neighbors' house.

Tidbits of personal experience like this help me flesh out my writing, whether the way the moon rides in the sky or how the sun glows behind clouds or the feel of silk on skin or the effect of champagne on the libido.

A much more complex experience served as the personal inspiration for Legacy of Honor, which I hope to be re-publishing via Kindle in the next few days.  I've been torn as to whether or not to include an Afterword -- the digital edition already has a much-too-lengthy Foreword -- but I feel as if some record is warranted of the event that actually inspired that novel.

The 1812 invasion of Russia ended Napoleon's dreams of empire, and ultimately saved England.  The Corsican's Grand Armée lost perhaps as many as half a million soldiers, depending on whose account you read.  Tens of thousands succumbed to disease and fell in battle even before they reached Moscow, but the long march back to France was devastating.  Horses, wagons, cannon, everything became just so much debris littering the roadside.

The Peninsular War had taken its toll on French forces and resources, but Russia dealt the tactical and political death blow from which Napoleon would not -- could not -- recover.

I had learned the basic historical background from Tolstoy's War and Peace, which will probably always be one of the definitive novels of the inhumanity of that or any other campaign, but the real inspiration for Legacy of Honor was a fascinating gentleman I met one night in Torremolinos, Spain in the early spring of 1969.

To get away from the snow and cold of Chicago and to pursue my almost life-long dream of being A Writer, I had flown to Luxembourg on the last day of January that year.  After taking a train to Paris, I hitchhiked to the Spanish border, then took several more trains to Málaga and eventually settled in Torremolinos on the Costa del Sol.  Several weeks later, I took a job in a chintzy little bar in the downtown tourist section of the city.  

At the moment, I don't even remember the name of the bar.  The owner was a Swiss woman who didn't hang around the place much; my two fellow bartendresses were an English girl from Manchester and a young Scot from Glasgow.  I've since forgotten their names, too.

We earned a base wage per night -- only if we worked the entire 8:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. shift, nothing if we went home early -- plus a commission on any drinks we managed to talk the customers into buying for us.  Most of the liquor was well watered to make outrageous profits truly obscene.   It wasn't a particularly fun job, but it was easy and all three of us needed the money.

One particularly quiet night when we'd had almost no customers at all, the owner departed and left the three of us girls alone.  Some time later, two gentlemen entered and took seats at the bar. 

They were dressed alike in dark tuxedos with white ruffled shirts of the style popular in the late 1960s, but nothing else about them was similar.  One was older, perhaps in his 50s, short and a bit chubby, bald except for a fringe of short curly white hair.  He had a delightful, friendly smile.  They ordered a couple of beers and when I served them, I noticed the little bald guy was missing a finger on his left hand.

The younger man might have been in his late 20s or early 30s, and could easily be described as "movie star handsome."  Okay, he was flat out gorgeous.  He was also very tall, well over six feet, with thick dark hair, dark eyes, and absurdly long eyelashes. 

Conversation was slightly awkward, since the two men spoke no English, and I was the only one of us three girls who spoke Spanish.  But we managed.

I'm not sure what we talked about, but at some point in the conversation the younger man lit a cigarette.  This wasn't anything unusual, but something made me take note of it.  Was it because he was gorgeous and I was paying attention to anything and everything he did?  I don't know.  But I noticed he was rolling the cigarette over his fingers, and then a minute or two later, the cigarette was gone. 

I mean, one minute he had it in his hand and was smoking it, and then ... it wasn't there any more.  And it wasn't in the ash tray.  And it wasn't on the floor.

So I asked him where it went.  He held out both hands, neither of which held a cigarette, and insisted he didn't know.  I knew I was being set up for something, even if I didn't know what it was.  And of course while we were still puzzling over the cigarette, it somehow reappeared.

As if by magic? 

Hold that thought.

Neither of my companions behind the bar had any particular sleight of hand skills, and my only "tricks" were the ability to slightly wiggle my ears and to bend my fingers backward.  After we had all laughed about this -- and after the cigarette had disappeared and reappeared a couple more times -- the tall young man announced, in Spanish of course, "My friend eats glass."

No, that's not a typo.

He went on to explain that his companion would, if supplied with a fresh mug of beer, eat a glass.  Not one he provided that could be suspected of trickery, but one of ours from behind the bar.

The translating of all this prompted a lot of laughter and speculation, and of course we worried what would happen if the owner of the bar returned, but we decided what the hell.  We refilled their mugs and I handed the little bald guy a stemmed cognac glass.

He took a look at, then put the upper edge in his mouth and bit off a chunk.   He chewed it up, swallowed, and washed it down with a swig of beer.  Over the next ten minutes or so, he proceeded to consume the entire bowl of the glass and the flat base, leaving only the stem.  That part, he explained, was too hard to chew with his false teeth.

There was no broken glass in the bottom of the mug.  The beer was gone, and so was the glass.

Well, we were more than slightly astounded, as you might expect.  To this day, I can only assume he actually ate the damn glass.  I have no other explanation.

Or at least no complete explanation.  Some explanation came from the younger man, when he introduced himself as the owner of a nightclub around the corner from the bar -- and a magician.

Now, as I wrote above, I had demonstrated to him and his friend my totally trivial abilities to bend my fingers backward and wiggle my ears.  I was the only one of us working in the bar who spoke Spanish at all, and in those days my Spanish was actually pretty fluent.  My French was somewhere just below adequate, but I could get by.  (Remember?  I had hitchhiked from Paris to the Spanish border ... alone.)  While we were still enjoying the amazement of watching the little bald guy eat a glass, the tall and gorgeous magician offered me a job, as a dancer in his nightclub.

He handed me his business card and told me, in Spanish of course, to write to him at that address and he would make the arrangements.

I still have the card.  After 44 years it's a bit tattered, but .....

So he was Russian.  And gorgeous.  Like Gwen Bristow's Handsome Brute in Jubilee Trail.  And I knew someday I would have to write a book about him.  I knew.  I just knew.

That was March 1969.   A few days later, in another bar, I met the man who would become my husband.  Without ever contacting the Russian magician, I headed back to the States and a more or less normal life .  But I didn't forget.  And when one evening in 1980 I began to outline a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars, Igor von Tzebrikow de Villardo, Marques de Tzebriachwili, was the model for my hero.

From what little I have been able to find via the Internet, it appears that he remained involved in businesses, including real estate, in the Málaga-Torremolinos-Benalmádena corridor of the Costa del Sol, and may even still be there.  I would love to find out for sure.

¡Qué mundo pequeño!

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