The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Interview

All is Vanity – Charles Allan Gilbert

Marisol Tublé was 107 years old, and so it felt like something of an affront to wake up in a strange and extravagant hotel room with a headache and no recollection of how she had come to be there. Headaches were the ailment of the young and lazy, Marisol thought, for people who drank too much or did not want to listen to tiresome piano-playing relatives. At 107 one ought to have graduated to more noble illnesses.

She lay in the bed, her wrist against her forehead, staring up through the semi-gloom at a ceiling of painted panels and trying to recall what she had to do to today. There had been such a lot of traveling the past few weeks. She remembered that much. She was a singerthe Great Warbler Marisoland she was on a tour. Her final tour. A sudden throb passed through her head and she had a brief impression of concerts, one after the next, the hustle and bustle behind stage, the murmur of the audience as they settled into their cradle of anticipation, the flare of the stage lights, the swell of the orchestra, and the swell of her heart the beat before she began to sing, Budapest, Rome, Darmstadt. . . But where was she today?

She rolled over and squinted at the silver clock on the nightstand. She couldn’t see its numbers. It was a blurry, ticking moon, too far away. She dragged herself closer and stared at its blank face. Her old, old eyes flickered over the spiny hands. Then she let out a small squeak and sat straight up, her frail frame like a pole in the dark.

Nine o’ clock. It was nine o’ clock in the morning, and faint, butter-colored light was slipping through the slit in the drapes, and she could hear the distant calls of birds and people. Marisol remembered:  she had been on the final leg of her tour, almost done, and then there had been some unpleasant incidents, and she had been invited to visit one of those small, dusty countries that no one really knows exists, and to perform a concert there, as well as a brief conference to speak to the local press. That was it. She was staying at a hotel on the Rue de Marmiet, and her contact, a man named Mr. Devereux was to pick her up at 9 thirty from the lobby to take her to her interviews. Which left her with only thirty minutes to prepare herself and take her breakfast.

Ah well. The stage waits for no man. Or was it ‘Death waits for no man?’ There was no great difference.

She began to struggle out from among the sheets, heavy, scratchy, frilled things that smelled of must and rose-petals. She kicked them all onto the floor, slid off the bed, hurried for her dressing gown. . . .

It was odd that she had forgotten where she was. She could remember things from her childhood, clear as a glass of water, could remember stumbling on a curb on a hot summer day and losing an ice-cream cone to the muck of a gutter. She could remember her mother, playing piano, teaching Marisol to sing. But she could not remember where her performances were one day to the next. She frowned and began taking the curlers from her hair and rowing them up on the top of her vanity.

She felt very tired still, and the headache hadn’t left her. She hoped the interviews would go quickly and that the journalists would be pleasant. She began shuffling through the contents of an alligator-skin cosmetics case, bottles of tincture and clasps of powder clinking together softly beneath her fingers. She brought out an elaborate perfume-diffuser and poof’d a cloud of violet-smelling mist onto her neck.  One time, twice, again and again. Yes, she hoped very much the journalists were pleasant.

* * *

It took Marisol about twenty minutes to prepare herself, and that was in a great rush, without the attention to detail she usually gave herself. She painted her paper-thin skin very carefully, white as porcelain, with lead and bone-powder. She dabbed her lips and rouged her cheeks. She put on strings of pearls and a small hat, and when she was all finished she raised her head and smiled at herself in the mirror. Her face was a thousand hatches and cross-hatches, and she had not so much crow’s feet around her eyes, as octopus feet. But when she smiled, even in the silence and of the dim hotel room, her face turned glowing. Her eyes flashed, piercing and charming and witty and warm all at once, and had anyone been watching at that moment, her gaze would have struck home like a bolt of lightning.

The look faded as quickly as it had come. Marisol’s eyes dulled a little. She began puttering about.

Interviews. Interviews, and then a concert. And then she was almost done.

She adjusted her hat put on a pair of gloves, and then she let herself out of the room and went downstairs to the breakfast room. It was already 9 thirty by then, but it was not good to be early to anything, especially when meeting people one didn’t know.

Marisol had four bites of toast and three cups of black coffee in the breakfast room. It was a very shabby breakfast room. And empty. It might have been grand once, but it was difficult to tell because it was so dim, and there were great, many-ruffled drapes over the windows. The only person in the room was an attendant standing by the buffet, still as a statue. Marisol watched him as she nibbled at her bread, and drank the last of her coffee. Then she set down her napkin and hobbled out of the room. She found Mr. Deveraux waiting for her in the lobby.

“Mr. Deveraux,” she said, coming up to him and smiling again, that brilliant, flashing smile. “I hope all the preparations have been made in my dressing room for this evening?”

Marisol always asked that there be a bottle of Mr. Thymus’s Throat Soothing Syrup, as well as six pink roses and a piece of chocolate waiting for her after every concert. She didn’t really like chocolate, or pink roses for that matter, but if she didn’t ask anything people tended to get lazy.

Mr. Deveraux looked at her curiously when she spoke. Then he nodded and gestured for her to follow. He was a small man, and he seemed rather nervous. Marisol thought that was just as well. Nervous people were much easier to handle than confident people. He did look vaguely familiar, though. She watched him as she followed him through the glass doors and into the street. Perhaps it was just another old memory, a snippet of someone long dead. Perhaps it was not even that.

Mr. Deveraux escorted her along the street, through the sticky morning air. It was not a hot day, but it was one of those uncomfortable mornings where the heat was just enough to make one scratchy and sweaty simply by existing. The street was deserted. Quite as empty as the hotel’s breakfast room had been. It was lined with shops, shuttered and closed, a city hall, a cathedral and several cafes. Marisol could not hear the birds anymore, or the call of the people. It was utterly silent here.

Mr. Deveraux led her into the shadows of a promenade, past a beetle-black automobile and some dying palm trees, down a stretch of cobbles, waiting every few steps for Marisol to catch up.

Marisol didn’t hurry. She never hurried anywhere, not anymore. She looked around her with great interest, and whenever Mr. Deveraux looked at her with those questioning eyes of his, she smiled at him and continued to feign enjoyment of the scenery. They arrived, at last, at a tall, terracotta-colored building, and Marisol followed Mr. Deveraux up a flight of steep steps, ever-so-slowly, down a short hallway, and into a room furnished with two hard wooden chairs, a table, a vase of dead flowers, and nothing else.

Marisol frowned. This was a sad country indeed if this the best they could do. Why had the journalists not simply met her in the hotel? But again, ah well. One must be understanding of other people’s customs. Marisol stepped into the room and sat down on one of the chairs.

“I suppose we’d better get on with it then,” she said, and breathed deeply as though steeling herself for a great trial. “Please show them in one at a time, Mr. Deveraux.” Then she smiled one more time at him, and said began fanning herself with a small feathery fan.

“Y- yes,” said Mr. Deveraux, and peered at her again, and darted out. What an odd man, Marisol thought, turning her attention to a small window in the wall. It could be that Mr. Deveraux never seen an opera star before. Or perhaps her make-up was slipping. The heat was just enough to do that. She began quickly touching about her eyes and hair, and then the door opened and she dropped her hands into her lap.

Mr. Deveraux poked his head in. “Erm- ” he said.

“Yes?” said Marisol. She was beginning to feel somewhat annoyed. It was not a good day to be sitting in an ugly, stuffy room. She needed to begin practicing her scales. And why was everything so empty and desolate here? She still could not hear the sounds of a town through the window, and the birds were silent, too.

“Yes, erm . . . The journalist is here.”

Marisol clicked her tongue. “Yes, show them in. Quickly, please. I’d like to get back to the hotel as soon as I possibly can.”

Mr. Deveraux nodded, but he did not leave. He adjusted his collar. Finally he said: “There is only one to see you today, Marisol.”

Marisol paused her fanning, eying him. “Only one journalist?”

Mr. Deveraux nodded.

Marisol stared. That couldn’t be. Was there only one newspaper in this country? Granted, she was not in her prime any more, but that there should be so few interested in the Viennese Nightingale, the Star of Copenhagen, the Great Warbler? That was very nearly insulting.

“Yes, yes, all right,” she said, a bit testily. “Who needs a lot of journalists anyway? The sooner we’re finished the better. Show him in.”

Mr. Deveraux ducked his head and hurried out of the room. A few seconds later he returned, bringing with him a man. Or at least, something vaguely human-shaped.

The man who came in was not very much like a man at all really, or even much like a journalist, and the sight of him made Marisol flinch in her chair so hard that it creaked.

The man-thing was very stooped. He had a great, warty mushroom going out of the side of his head, his eyes were rheumy, and his skin was sagging in all the wrong places, so that it looked like a wet bag draped across his skull. His coat was covered in moss and barnacles, rooted in deep blue cloth. He came in, clumping over the floor, and settled himself heavily opposite her.

Marisol leaned forward, squinting. “You- you are the journalist?” she asked quizzically, and then looked to Mr. Deveraux. But Mr. Deveraux had already fled.

The man-thing watched her for several seconds, his eyes blunt and heavy. Marisol watched him back. She paid careful attention to the mushroom growing from his face, which seemed to be changing colors slowly from russet to deep-green.

“Please ask me questions, then,” Marisol said. “I haven’t got all day. If you’re the only one here, I’d like to be finished very soon. How long do you think you will need?”

Here the man-thing cleared his throat wetly and said, “I will ask the questions,” and took out an old pad of paper and a lead and began scribbling away at it. Marisol gasped. I will ask the questions? Did he mean that simply as a preamble to his question-asking, or was he telling her that he would be the only one asking questions, and therefore would not answer hers?

In which case he was being very rude. “I beg your pardon?” she said angrily, and hammered one heel on the floor.

“You have a concert tonight, then?” asked the man-thing, ignoring her question. “You are going to sing for a great audience?”

The man-thing spoke very quickly and only looked at her briefly, and all the while he scribbled in a notepad in his hands, though Marisol had not yet answered with a single word.

Marisol stared at him, her hands clasped tight in her lap. What in all earth? “Mr.-  Mr. whoever you are, I am a singer, and you are a reporter, and it is your business to ask me questions that are not stupid. Proceed.”

The man-thing looked up at her quickly, then down. “Are you a good singer? Have you been singing a long time? Perhaps as a job?”

Oh, thought Marisol. She knew what game he was playing. It was one she had come across many times before. The envious, faintly aggressive sort, who made a point of being ignorant of everything his subject had ever done, in order to make his subject feel small and insignificant. Well, Marisol was beyond that. She had met all the varieties of writers and journalists in her interviews throughout the yearssorts who smiled very wide and then wrote articles all of black slashes and bits of hate, sorts who were cold and aloof, sorts who were callow and eager, and asked far too many questions, so that she had to flap them away like flies. This was just another kind, this envious creature. Perhaps the man-thing was a singer, too, and was deemed too ugly for the stage. There was the saying that if you could not do, you taught. Equally true might be: if you could not live, you wrote.

“You are clearly new at this job,” said Marisol sharply, at which the man-thing looked up with some irritation. “I suggest you research journalism and proper etiquette and how to remove fungi from your face, and then perhaps we can speak again after my concert this evening.” She stood, swaying a little on her feet.

“What do you remember about yesterday?” asked the man-thing, not moving at all.

Marisol ignored him, making her way slowly toward the door.

“Fine then, what do you remember from last week? Were you happy last week? Or were you sad. Perhaps you were sad. A bit depressed, even.”

What a perfectly foolish question for a newspaper article. But then newspapers weren’t what they used to be. People didn’t want information. They wanted stories. Exciting stories. Tragic stories. Funny stories. False stories.

Marisol reached the door and tried to open it. It wouldn’t budge. It was locked. She wheeled around on the man-thing, who still hunched over his pad, back toward her, scribbling.

“Do you like it here?” he went on. “Or would you rather be somewhere else?”

Marisol was trembling now, part with rage and part with fear. How dare he? Why had she even come? What was this wretched city and its wretched hotel? “It is ghastly here,” she spat, not even thinking. “You are ghastly. The hotel is ghastly. I hate it. I hate all of it. I am leaving the moment my concert is done, and you can be sure I will have nothing pleasant to say of you when I am home again. Now, I demand you let me out.”

The man-thing did not move a muscle. Scritch-scratch-scratch went the nib of his pen, and the ink splattered.

“Mr. Deveraux!” screeched Marisol, and it almost killed her to do it because screeching was not good for the vocal chords. “Mr. Deveraux?”

The man-thing didn’t look up. “What time is your concert tonight?”

“I am not a signpost! Go and find a flyer and look it up.” Marisol began pounding against the wood, her thin hands cracking painfully on the frame.

“What are you singing?”

“The Arias from Tosca!” she screamed. “From Puccini! Let me out!”

“Do you know what happens in that opera, Mrs. Marisol? In Tosca?”

“Of course I know! I’ve sung the role a thousand times! Do you know?”

“I do. I do know. It is about a great and desperate lady, who at the end of Act 2, takes a knife and-  Marisol, it’s about a person who murders another person, and then runs away.”

Marisol stopped pounding the door. She turned on the man-thing, and the man-thing turned, too, in his chair and looked at her with his mournful eyes and hideous face. Marisol’s gaze was very sharp just then, and so lucid, that even the man-thing stared. And then Marisol smiled. Her last resort. Her final tactic with reticent journalists. It was a desperate, terrible smile.

“It’s all very sad, isn’t it. But the music. The music!”

The man-thing closed his pad. “Marisol,” he said gently, and he no longer seemed so dreadful. “Marisol, I am not a journalist. I am doctor. Do you remember? Do you remember anything?” Suddenly he looked rather sad, or perhaps pitying.

Marisol continued to stare at him, her smile fixed, her powdered skin cracking into tiny filigree beneath her eyes.

The man rose from his chair. He didn’t look quite so strange anymore, not even to Marisol. He didn’t even have mushroom growing out of his face. And his coat was the blue of a uniform, wasn’t it. No moss or barnacles. A blue uniform with a red cross above the heart.

“You’re lost, Marisol. It has been forty years since you were last on stage. It’s been forty years since you were anywhere but here, since you took up that knife and- ”

“It’s wonderful, isn’t it,” she said, pointedly ignoring that statement. “Everyone knowing you. You know, I always thought you’d really made it when you don’t have to tell people things about you anymore and they just know.”

“Do you have any memories of your family? Who they were? Perhaps if you remembered that, we could trace someone, find someone to- ”

“There is no one,” said Marisol, and the smile dropped from her face like a stone. “There is no one left. People die. They forget. But the audience doesn’t. I’ll always have them. The audience loves me.” Her words were ferocious there, wild and sharp . . . and then her face softened again, and she looked simply tired and frail and rather annoyed, waiting to leave so that she could go and warm up her voice.

* * *

Mr. Deveraux came back to collect her after the doctor had gone. “How was the interview?” he asked, helping her from her chair.

“Odious,” said Marisol. “The journalist was a boor. I think he disliked me from the start. I don’t even want to know what the article will be like.” She began to warm up her voice even as she walked, her notes high and reedy, like a cracked whistle. She broke off a second later and began fanning herself vehemently. “He was clearly just a bitter pudding. That’s what my mother would say. A bitter, bitter pudding, all nasty and rancid. You know, I’m glad there aren’t any more reporters in this wretched town. I don’t think I could bear to speak with them. I will sing for the audience, yes, but then I’m done. I’m flying straight back to Paris. Mr. Deveraux, you may arrange the car to pick me up first thing in the morning.”

Mr. Deveraux nodded patiently.

And as they walked down the street and into the hotel, the world seemed to drift around them, disintegrating. The floral wallpaper faded to white plaster, the chandeliers wilted into iron lamps, and the drapes fell to nothing over bare and glaring windows, barred on the outside. Marisol was no longer dressed in velvet and pearls. She limped along in thin slippers over the green floor. Her clothing was a white shift. But as Mr. Deveraux brought her back to her cell on the third floor of the Belvoir Institute and guided her gently through the door, she turned and smiled at him, and there were those eyes again, diamond-bright, and her face enough to light a stage, and it made Mr. Deveraux pause for a second in awe.

“I’m ready to sing for them,” said Marisol, and her eyes flashed one more time. Then she vanished into her cell, and Mr. Deveraux closed the door behind her and locked it.

As he went away down the corridor he heard the sound of music drifting after him, the beginning notes from one of Puccini’s arias, rising, rising in a small, broken arpeggio, and for an instant he thought he heard the rustling of an audience, the breath of excitement as the stage-lights flared and the curtain began to rise. . . .

3 Responses to “The Interview”

  1. Samantha says:

    Your story is completely splendiferous! Such is that, right at the beginning suspense leeches itself onto the reader, looming, weighing down their heads; the pop at the end so unanticipated, making the reader holding their gadget with The Interview on grip the person beside them, completely oblivious, and whisper to them the whole conclusion. Marisol is a beautifully eccentric character, your words and words you did not impart made the country in her mind beautiful and eccentric, too.

    • Stefan Bachmann Stefan Bachmann says:

      Aw, thank you! I’m so happy you liked it! It took me fifty bajillion years to write, and kind of broke my brain, so this is super nice to read. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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