Literary Fiction Science Fiction Love Strange

A Wow Finish

By James Van Pelt
Sep 21, 2018 · 6,598 words · 24 minutes

Photo by Jake Hills via Unsplash.

Earle woke up last, on the floor under a sheet.  Durance stood at the window, watching the rain, while Hoffman, achingly beautiful sat on the end of the bed, elbow on knee, chin in hand.  They were already dressed.

Of all the field trips to all the times in all the world, she had to choose mine, Earle thought, conscious that he was naked beneath the thin covering.  He wondered which of them had put the sheet over him.

“It’s a pity we always arrive in a storm,” said Durance.  He tugged at his dark tie.  “And the outfits are uncomfortable.”  He wore a beige double-breasted suit with matching pants creased so sharply Earle thought he could cut paper with them.

“Allergens,” said Hoffman without moving.  “The air’s cleaner on a rainy day.  God knows what you’d react to here.  Street dust.  Pollutants.  Pigeons.  It’s safer on wet days.  Cowardly, perhaps, but safer.”  She smiled at Earle.  “You going to lay there all evening?”

Earle rolled to his side.  His clothes were neatly piled beside him.  He pulled them under the sheet and dressed there, aware that Hoffman only had to shift her gaze a foot to be looking right at him.  It was a struggle to get into the shoes.  The stiff leather bit into his ankles, but they had a nice shine to them, and putting them on made him feel more there.  More real.  Somewhere distant a bell rang.  He realized he’d been hearing it for a while.  Beyond that a steady rumble quivered just on the edge of his perceptions.

“Look at this phone,” said Durance, picking it up.  At first Earle thought that it was tied to the table.  Durance said, “Wires and a dial.  How do you work it?”

Hoffman stood from the bed, smoothing the front of her skirt with the edge of her hands. She’d cut her hair short for the trip and given it a curl.  “Honestly, it’s like you’ve never been in the field before.”

“Nothing before 2020.  My master’s was on post-rock pop.  I got interested in the roots of neuro big band, though.  Earle has been in the Twentieth Century, though.  I sampled that thing you did on the Hindenburg.  Nice work.” 

Earle struggled with the shirt’s buttons.  “Beginner’s luck.  I was a last minute replacement.”

Durance shrugged, then put the phone back on the table.  “Hard to believe the trouble I’m going through to put in an extra footnote.  Tiny Hill and his orchestra are in the Green Room here in the Edison.  Harry James is uptown at the Astor, and Benny Goodman opens there tomorrow.  Cab Calloway plays the Park Central.”

“Pretty good lineup,” said Earle.

“I tried talking Hoffman into going with me.  A live band has to be better than a dusty old movie.  So why go?”  Durance laughed and put his hand on Hoffman’s shoulder.  She leaned into him.  Earle turned away, concentrated on tying his shoe.

“Ask Earle.  It’s Casablanca,” she said.  “Opening week.  I don’t get it either.  The Hindenburg, now that was important, but a film?  Well, for a me a theater’s as good a place as any.”

Durance sniffed.  “I read up on the movie.  Who can watch this stuff?  Ancient black and white that you can’t edit while you watch, and bad piano bar music on top of that.  Dooley Wilson didn’t even play the piano.  He was a drummer.  Then there’s a bunch of Germans singing an off-tune version of “Die Wacht Am Rhein” instead of “Deutschland Uber Alles,” which would have made more sense.  I wouldn’t get anything useful.  Hard to believe people would get worked up over it.  Twentieth Century sentimentalism.”

“I’ve never seen it,” said Hoffman.  “Studied the background, though.  Vichy France.  The German advances.  The resistance movement.  Bogart.  Bergman.  I’m ready.”

Earle paused in straightening his jacket.  He didn’t know that she had never seen the film. There might be hope yet.  He dropped the sheet on the bed as he walked to the window.  Traffic flowed below, rumbling.  “Broadway,” he said.  “The Great White Way.  1942.  Three and a half weeks until Christmas, and an entire world that hasn’t seen Casablanca.”  He could feel the cars passing through his fingertips resting on the window sill.  “Bogart said, ‘When it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?’”

Durance shrugged.  “That’s 47th.  Broadway is around the corner. It’s just an old movie.  You could have stayed home and watched it on video.”

“And you could listen to big band recordings whenever you want.  Why’d you make the trip?” said Earle.

Durance glanced at Hoffman.  He said, “Experiential research.  I’m nanoed to the gills.  Download the lot uptime, and I’ll have a couple years’ work worth of data in my twenty-four hours.  No paper’s complete anymore without actual field hours,” but his glance said it all.

“Me too.  Serves me right for asking a direct question,” said Earle.

Hoffman slipped her arms into a coat, then flipped the white blouse’s collars over the blue wool, as if she’s always worn the style.  She pulled on a pair of white gloves.  Earle could hear Bogart’s dialogue in his head:  “I remember every detail.  The Germans wore grey.  You wore blue.”

“We’d better get going, Earle.  It’s a four-block walk, and I want good seats.”

Durance said, “I’ve got a half hour before the band starts here.  Last chance at some decent music, Hoffman.”

She shook her head at him as she headed for the door. 

In the hallway, a sign read, WHEN IN DOUBT, PUT IT OUT.

She ran her fingers along the sign.  Earle knew she was calling for info out of habit, but they weren’t tied in here.  No instant details about whatever they wanted.  No augmentation at all.  They had to fit in.  “Cigarettes?” said Hoffman.  She buttoned her coat.  “I didn’t think the anti-smoking trend came along for another fifty years.”  She sniffed.  “It doesn’t smell like it’s working either.”

Earle adjusted his hat, a dark snap-brim with a black silk band above the brim.  “It’s a light-dimming measure.  They were afraid German submarines might cruise up the Hudson River to shell the Rockefeller Center or something.  They never really turned the lights out on Broadway, though.”

Hoffman laughed, “That’s funny.  For a second there I tried to edit out the smell.  It’s weird to be stuck with one version of the world.”

“Nope.  Can’t change a thing.  Just like the natives.  No VR ghosts.  No info on demand.  It’s a single-track existence.  Besides, you’d stick out wearing your regular headgear.”

Earle looked down the long hall, doors opening on each side, a serving tray on the floor next to the nearest room, on the tray a partly eaten sandwich on a plate beside an empty cup.  That’s exactly it, he thought, that makes this so good.  One reality.  Of course, even in the editable world, Hoffman had left him.

A bell chimed, and the elevator arrived.  Earle started in recognition.  That was the bell he’d been hearing.  The doors opened to reveal a mirrored back wall.  His coat looked good next to hers.  Wide lapels.  Plain epaulets on the shoulders.  Buckled cinch bands at the wrists.  He turned his collar up.

“You look like Bogart,” Hoffman said.

“In a raincoat and hat, everyone looks like Bogart.”   He tried not to consider her face in the mirror.  “Why’d you choose this trip?  There were others to this era.”

“I wouldn’t have come if I had known that you were here.  I’m still research assistant for Dr. Monroe.  She’s doing that monograph on women’s social development in the mid-twentieth.  This slot was open.  Besides, she wanted me to see how contemporary women react to Ingrid Bergman saying”–she pulled a notecard from her pocket and read-- “‘I don’t know what’s right any longer.  You have to think for both of us.’”

“You’ll love Capitaine Renault then.  His hobby is preying on pretty girls who need exit visas but don’t have any money.”

Hoffman raised her eyebrows.  “And this is the classic film you argued was ‘the cultural pivot point in American consciousness’?”

If that bothered her, Earle thought, he couldn’t wait to see her response to Renault saying, “How extravagant you are, throwing away women like that.  Someday they may be scarce.”

The elevator opened onto the lobby level.

Hoffman stepped out first.  “Heavens.  If you love art deco, this is the place.”

Gold-rimmed half-dome chandeliers hung from gold chains above the gold and brown carpet.  Overstuffed chairs nestled up to tiny tables where a handful of people sipped from china cups. 

A pair of sailors in dress whites walked by.  “We could catch The Skin of Our Teeth if you wanted to see a show,” said one.

“I hate Thornton Wilder,” said the other.  “We’ve only got two days.  I’m going to spend the time snuggling up to that hat check girl or someone just like her.”

Hoffman took a step after them, then turned to Earle.  “That’s the kind of material I need.  They’re so primitive.”

“I don’t know.  You’d get the same talk in the grad dorms on a Friday night.”

“Really?”  Hoffman looked offended.

She took a complimentary umbrella from the doorman.  Earle waved off the offer.  He wanted to feel the rain tapping against his hat, to get more into the moment of time that was this time.  He needed to submerge in 1942, so that it would be visceral.  He couldn’t just watch the video because the video wasn’t theater.  Experiential research meant that there was no substitute for being there.  Like Durance, his system practically leaked nanos.  They recorded everything he sensed.  They made a duplicate of the experience he could return to again and again for study.  Better than eyewitness reporting.  So, no umbrella.  Connect to the moment, walking in the rain with Hoffman, like Paris, where Bogart waited in the rain for Bergman at the train station.  “Where is she?  Have you seen her?” Bogart asked.  The storm poured down.  “No, Mr. Richard,” said Sam.  “I can’t find her.”  Sam handed Bogart a note.  It read in part, “Richard, I cannot go with you or ever see you again.”  The ink ran in the rain.

They stepped through the doors onto the sidewalk.  Earle held his hand out.  Droplets pelted his palm.  He could imagine the note in it, the ink leaking off the page.   A car passed, splashing water onto their shoes.

Hoffman said, “I thought it would be louder.  You know, all the gasoline engines.”

Rain hissed off the street, drummed steadily against the buildings.  Tires whined on the pavement.  Lights glistened on the wet surfaces.  Two couples, huddled under their umbrellas, hurried into the Edison’s doors.  This is New York at war, thought Earle.  You couldn’t tell.  Despite gasoline rationing, traffic was heavy.  A restaurant sign advertised a variety of steaks.  Other than the sailors in the lobby, he hadn’t seen military personnel or equipment.  Were there anti-aircraft guns on the roofs?

He wanted to ask her about Durance.  Hoffman hadn’t seen the film.  He could say Bogart’s line without a hint of irony, “Tell me, who was it you left me for?  Was it Durance, or were there others in between?”

Hoffman said, “It’s breezy wearing a dress.  These nylons aren’t insulating at all.  What did women do when it snowed?”

“They toughed it out, but they suffered.  They took jobs in the factories and raised kids on their own, and waited for terrible telegrams to tell them their husbands weren’t coming home.”  Cars eased by, dripping water from their fenders.  Earle strained to see the people within. God, it’s 1942, he thought. Soldiers are dying by the thousands.  Northern Africa, southern France. Drowning next to the flames of their burning freighters.  Broken airplanes tumbling.  Many, many more are yet to die.

Hoffman shivered.

They crossed 48th.  Low-hanging clouds hid the buildings’ tops.  The few pedestrians walked briskly under their umbrellas.

“It’s amazing how every place in the past feels just like home,” Hoffman said.  “I mean, the air smells different–all those hydrocarbons–and the architecture’s dated, but I’m the same.  I could have been born here just as easily as any other time.  Of course, half of my brain feels like it’s turned off, but other than that . . .”  She stepped around a puddle.

She doesn’t see it, thought Earle.  There’s nothing here that’s like home.  Life here was both straightforward and mysterious.  Everything was what it appeared to be, but nothing provided answers.  The buildings, the sidewalks, the stores, the people, unaugmented and uneditedable, but all mute, their histories hidden.  All of it’s different.  How could he explain that to her so that she’d know?  “If you want to see sights unique to the era, we could cross over a few blocks.  St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Waldorf-Astoria are that way.”  He pointed east, across Broadway.

“The cars are huge!”

A yellow Nash coup cruised by, rain water running off its long hood, the silhouette of a couple, visible for just a moment in the front seat.  Packards, Olds, Mercurys, Studebakers, Plymouths, De Sotos, Grahams, Fords, and others he couldn’t identify splashed through the shallow pools.  A car twice as long as any he’d ever driven in glided on broad whitewalls, a covered spare tire mounted on the running board behind the front wheel.  A Cadillac, probably, or a Rio.  He whistled in appreciation. 

Hoffman walked several steps ahead, hidden beneath her umbrella.  What I need, thought Earle, is something she wants.  I need a Ugarte to give me letters of transit.  A passport to her heart.  Ugarte, Peter Lorre in a beautifully done small part, said the letters were “signed by General DeGaull.  Cannot be rescinded.  Not even questioned.”  Ugarte killed a pair of German couriers to get them. 

Earle shook his head.  How did Bogart get Bergman back?  He practically called her a whore, but she still loved him.  Casablanca started as a story of a jilted lover’s bitterness.  Bogart wanted to punish Bergman for leaving him, but the vengeance went awry.  Instead of hurting her, he drew her in.  Bergman said, “I can’t fight it anymore.  I ran away from you once.  I can’t do it again.”

“Tell me about the movie,” Hoffman said.

Earle sped up so that he walked beside her.

Casablanca is a pivot point for Americans’ attitudes about themselves and the war.  They didn’t think that at the time.  It was just another movie, but when cultural historians look back now, they see it.  It’s a slice of the times.  Go in with an open mind; maybe you’ll get more out of it than you believe.  If you keep your eyes open, you’ll see all sorts of gender attitudes.”

Hoffman peeked from under the umbrella.  “These gloves aren’t very warm either.  December in New York is cold,” Hoffman said.  She jammed her free hand under her armpit.  “So what should I be looking for?”

He smiled.  “Start with Yvonne.  It’s implied that she and Bogart have a relationship, but he dumps her in an early scene.  She says, ‘Where were you last night?’ and he says, ‘That’s so long ago I can’t remember.’  It’s a classic demonstration of Bogart indifference.  The really interesting moment is with a Bulgarian girl later in the film.  She wants Bogart’s advice on love and sacrifice.  I don’t want to spoil it, but her quandary reflects on what’s going on between Bogart, Bergman and Henreid.”

“Henreid?”

“Victor Laszlo in the film, Bergman’s husband.”

“Right.  Sorry.  I got him mixed up with Greenstreet.”

“He owns the Blue Parrot.  Another big actor doing a nice turn in a small role.”

Hoffman lifted the umbrella so she could look at him.  Her eyes caught the oncoming car lights.  “Just how many times have you seen this film?  You never talked about it a year ago.”

“Maybe a hundred.”

“Heavens!  So you’ve been a Casablanca fan your whole life?”

They crossed 49th.  “No, not really.  I saw it the first time in January.”  He blushed.  “Well . . . um . . . I was doing a lot of other things too.  Have to keep busy, you know.”

“It’s just hard to believe that a piece of film could be worth the trip.”  She kept glancing at the traffic to her side, but didn’t say anything else as they approached the theater.  Her silence was disconcerting.  A hundred times, he thought.  She’ll think I’ve spent all my days watching romances.  How pathetic.  But he did watch it a hundred times, reclining in his academic’s cubical, the film playing on the ceiling.  Sometimes, while walking on campus, he had edited the world into black and white, and Sam playing “As Time Goes By.”  University noir, he had thought.

The line into the theater was short.  Earle fingered the unfamiliar paper cash in his pocket.  Seventy-five cents each for admission.  For a moment he panicked when he couldn’t remember if dollars were more than cents as he handed the woman at the ticket window a five.  She smiled and pushed back a pair of quarters and three dollars.

In the lobby, Hoffman folded the umbrella, after fumbling with the mechanism for a moment, then looked at the change.  “Is this any way to run an economy?  It’s so clumsy, passing around metal and paper.  How many people do you think touched this?  Yuck.”

“You sound like Durance,” he said.

She laughed.  “Sorry.  He can be a bit overwhelming.  Infectious cynicism.  Most of the time I edit him down.  I’m going to mingle a bit before the show.  See what I can learn.”   

Earle moved to the edge of the room so he could survey the area.  Like the Edison, the lobby was opulent, more like a museum than a theater.  He laughed to himself.  Experiential research always affected him this way, and it was hard to shake the idea that the world he was walking through was virtual and augmented instead of being actual.  This was the real world.  1942.  A paranoid world at war, although, as someone once told him, it isn’t paranoia if they’re really out to get you.  All kinds of history happened in ‘42.  The Japanese captured Manila, Bataan fell, Roosevelt interned Japanese-Americans, MacArthur left the Phillipines, an oil refinery in California was shelled by a Japanese sub, the civilian draft began.   The war hit close to New York too.  In June, the FBI arrested four German saboteurs after a u-boat landed them on Long Island.

The people waiting to see Casablanca didn’t look nervous.  They chatted in the low murmur people use when in public.  He wondered if the first audiences for Romeo and Juliet were the same way.  No idea what awaited them inside.  It is just another play, they would have been thinking.  An idle way to spend a few hours.  But the world was different afterwards.  Those first audiences were there at the beginning, like people standing in a mountain meadow, unaware that the tiny stream starting at their feet was the progenitor of the Mississippi. 

A handful stood near the coatroom.  A couple leaned close together under a BUY WAR BONDS poster.  Others entered a door into the theater.

“Shall we?” said Hoffman.

They took seats near the front.  The room smelled of plush and colognes, and the wet street on people’s shoes.  Earle eyed the curtain at the front of the room apprehensively.  It stretched nearly the length of the stage.  “We could be too close.  The image might not hold up when you’re near the screen.”

“They wouldn’t have chairs here if it wasn’t good.”  Hoffman sat, then squirmed a bit.  “You wouldn’t believe what I’m wearing under this,” she said.  “It’s all seams and scratchy cloth.”

Earle surveyed the theater.  Casablanca had its opening night three days earlier.  Now, fewer than half the seats were filled, almost all folks in their twenties or older.  He breathed deeply.  His record of the experience would be clearer if he stayed focused and calm.  Hormonal imbalances could throw it off.  He tried to forget that Hoffman was sitting next to him, her arm against his on the armrest.  Slow breaths.  Calmness.

The house lights dimmed, and the ceiling to floor curtains drew aside, revealing the screen.

“Very dramatic,” said Hoffman.  She settled deeper into her seat.

Behind them, a ratchety noise clicked into being, then a beam of light cut through the air to illuminate the screen.  Earle turned.  Through a small window high on the wall at the back of the theater, the projector glowed as the first film rolled.  He nodded.  The clicking would be the film pulling through the sprockets and the shutter flicking in front of each frame to give the illusion of movement.  That’s what I’m here for, he thought.  All the reading about Casablanca had never told him how loud the projection equipment could be.  He faced the screen.  Movie Tone News, the title said. Reading hadn’t told him that the floor would be sticky, or that watching a film in a huge room in the company of strangers felt so . . . well . . . so theatrical.  No wonder people went to movies by the millions.  This was the era before television, before computers and home theaters and specvids or tactiles or any of the entertainments he was used to.  Black and white images of battleships at sea filled the screen.

The narrator’s voice boomed through the theater.  “Brave sailors on the USS Dakota shot down a record thirty-two enemy planes in a valiant effort in support of the South Pacific campaign.”  A shadowy plane raced across a grey sky, chased by tracers.

A woman a few seats to his left sat with her hands up to her mouth.  Did she know someone in the navy?  She might have been twenty, hair curled below her ears, a crucifix dangling from her throat, and she wore a long white skirt covered with a floral pattern, her coat folded on her lap.  She appeared to be alone.

In the row in front of them there were three couples, all with the man’s arm around the woman’s shoulder.  More than half the people in the theater were coupled up.  It’s a social occasion, Earle realized.  Going to the movies wasn’t just about seeing the story, it was, oddly enough, in the darkness of the theater and the noise of the movie, a way to be with someone.  Granted, the communication was nonverbal, but the people must have come together to be together.

Hoffman sat beside him.  He could put his arm around her.  How would she respond?  Her hands lightly gripped the armrests.  Her legs were uncrossed.  Nothing about her body language gave him a clue one way or another about what she was thinking.  If he just raised his own arm, he could reach around her.  Would she move in close?  Her violet perfume filled his nose.  From the corner of his eye, in the flickering light of the Movie Tone News, he could see the curve of her cheek, the reflected shine in her eye.

Earle’s arm twitched.  It would be so easy to make the motion to hold her.  He could tell her that it was part of the experience of seeing a movie in 1942.  He leaned to the left so he could raise his arm.

Something bumped the back of his chair.  Earle turned.  It was Durance, his forearms resting on their chair tops.  “I figured I could catch Tiny Hill’s Orchestra’s late show.  Thought I’d better see what this Casablanca fuss was all about.   I had a tough time finding you in the dark!”

A sibilant “Shh!” hissed from a row back.

“It’s not etiquette to talk in a theater,” whispered Hoffman.  She didn’t appear happy to see him.

“Why not?” Durance said, his voice still too loud.  “It’s not a live performance.”

“Shh,” said Earle.

The Warner Bother’s theme trumpets and drums theme filled the auditorium, and the film began.

Earle slid down in the chair until his head rested against the plush.  The opening credits played over a map of Africa.  He trembled.  An arrow traced its way from Paris, across France, through the Mediterranean to end in Casablanca where all refugees without exit visas “wait and wait and wait.”

He’d seen the picture a hundred times before.  The rhythm of it was familiar–the report of the dead couriers and the stolen letters of transit, the roundup of suspects, the English couple talking to the pickpocket--but he’d never seen the movie like this, in a huge theater, and the atmosphere was different.  The people sitting all around him had no idea that they were in the presence of greatness.  Earle felt the same way he had at the Hindenburg.  1937.  The ship was ridiculously large, only eighty-seven feet shorter than the Titanic.  Earle had stood with a crowd to watch the docking.  The people oohed and ahhed at her girth.  They didn’t know.  They didn’t know, but Earle did.  To the unprepared, great moments felt like common ones until they were over.

On the screen, a model airplane flew over a crowded, Moroccan street.  The people stared hopefully.  Hoffman leaned into him.  “That’s not a very realistic looking airplane.”

“Production costs,” he whispered back.  “Almost everything you see was done in the studio or back lots.  No computer help.”

She wrinkled her brow.  “It’s distracting.”

“The story is not about the plane.”

Scenes flicked by: Germans stepped onto the runway where Renault waited.  Bogart played chess by himself at Rick’s.  Ugarte bragged to Bogart about selling exit Visas cheap.  “I don’t mind a parasite,” said Bogart.  “I object to a cut rate one.”

Earle craned his neck to see other patrons in the theater.  What were they feeling?  How did the movie effect them?  The woman in the floral print dress leaned forward, but he could see nothing in her or the rest of the audience’s attentive faces.  For a second, Durance met Earle’s gaze, but he looked back to the screen.

Earle turned around.  Within minutes, Bergman entered, saw Sam.  She had to know right then, Earle thought.  Rick was back in her life.  The bar was called Rick’s and Sam was Rick’s best friend.  Sam knew too the heartache she brought.  Earle could see it in Sam’s face.  Sam must have been thinking, run boss!  Later he would beg Rick to leave.  “Please, boss, let’s go.  There ain’t nothing but trouble for you here.  We’ll take the car and drive all night.  We’ll get drunk.  We’ll go fishing and stay away until she’s gone.”

But Rick waited for a woman.  He made Sam play, “As Time Goes By.”

Earle’s hands rested on his knees.  Hoffman had taken the armrest.  She stared at the screen, the changing light brightening then shadowing her features.

Bergman walked into Rick’s.  “Can I tell you a story?”  she asked Rick.

“Does it got a wow finish?” he said.

“I don’t know the finish yet.”

I don’t know the finish either, thought Earle.  He felt Bogart’s pain in his loss of expression.  Despite his tough-guy posturing, it was all there beneath.  And the film played on, uneditable, inevitable, like history, Earle thought.  He wondered what the script of the evening held for him.  Was there an inevitable crash coming?  Was his Hindenburg moving toward the docking tower, with him on board instead of those poor, doomed people?  But, gradually, as the film clicked on, he forgot about Hoffman sitting next to him and Durance behind.  He forgot about the other people in the theater.  They were all in Casablanca, holding letters of transit close to their hearts, bargaining with bitterness for love.  Ignoring the Nazi Major Strasser and his arrogance.  Ignoring the pain in the world around them, until the passion became too much.  Laszlo lead the café’s band in “La Marseillaise,” overwhelming the Germans’ singing of “Die Wacht Am Rhein.”  Even Yvonne, Bogart’s spurned lover who came to the bar with a German officer on her arm joined in, tears on her cheeks.  Bergman looked at her driven husband across the room, who was not thinking of himself or her or of love, but of his occupied France and the German heel in its back.  It was an instant where Earle often paused the film to look at Bergman’s eyes.  The world was in them, filled with respect for Laszlo’s courage, with admiration.  Anyone would give a lifetime to earn the look that Bergman considered him with, and Laszlo didn’t know.  He sang the song to its end, the expatriates in the café on their feet, for a moment joined in emotion.

But Earle couldn’t pause the film.  It rolled on.  “Viva la France!” they roared.  “Viva La France!”

Like he had a hundred times before, Renault closed the café under Strasser’s orders.  Bogart said, “How can they close me up?  On what grounds?”  Renault said, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here.”  Just then the croupier handed Renault a handful of cash.  “Your winnings sir.”  The audience laughed, which woke Earle to his mission.  He broke his gaze from the screen.  The woman in the floral dress didn’t laugh.  Her posture was tense.  Earle could see she was mesmerized.  What’s going to happen next? she must be thinking.  Her life was involved now, like the audience to any worthwhile story.  What’s going to happen?

In a few minutes, Bergman would wait for Bogart in his apartment.  She’d plead for the letters.  Finally, she’d pull a gun on him.  “Go ahead and shoot,” he’d say.  “You’ll be doing me a favor.”  She will put the gun down. “Richard, I tried to stay away.  I thought I would never see you again, that you were out of my life.”  She’ll weep.  “The day you left Paris, if you knew what I went through.  If you knew how much I loved you, how much I still love you.”  They’d kiss.

Why didn’t Bogart see what she was doing?  Earle thought.  The Bulgarian girl not ten minutes earlier in the film had said, “If someone loved you very much so that your happiness was the only thing she wanted in the world, and she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?”

But that was the beauty.  Bogart didn’t.  He couldn’t replay the Bulgarian girl’s words.  He couldn’t edit what Bergman said to him, nor could he tinker with his own heart.  Maybe by the end of the film he figured it out, but right then, Bogart went with his own emotions.  He forgot his anger and held her, Bergman, with her luminous eyes and high cheekbones and smile like a sunrise.

Hoffman whispered.  “You didn’t tell me the film had a sense of humor.”

Earle felt her breath in his ear, her hand on his arm.  “It has irony,” he whispered back, keenly aware that Durance sat behind them.  Did Bogart send Bergman off with Henreid at the end of the film because he knew she didn’t love him?  Was he that keen-sighted?  And how did he know?

What was Hoffman thinking?  Did she care for him in the least?

Earle forced himself to look away from the screen again.  He was here to experience Casablanca in a world where it hadn’t existed before.  He had a job to do. 

The woman in the floral dress held a handkerchief to her cheek, not moving.  Her face was wet with tears.  Henreid asked Bergman about the time she thought he was dead.  “Were you lonely in Paris?” he asked.  “I know how it is to be lonely,” he said.  Was Henreid forgiving Bergman for the affair with Bogart without even knowing about it?  The woman in the floral dress sobbed silently.  What was her story?  Was her husband at war?  Did she believe him to be dead?  Even now, was there a lover?

Earle watched, awed.  How seldom had he been able to feel the world through someone else.  The bend of her wrist.  The handkerchief’s dangling end.  The quiet, wracking sobs that shook her sides.  How privileged he felt to be a part of her moment.  What a moment of trespass on his part.  Everything he hoped for in coming to see Casablanca was encompassed by this scene.  This would be bigger than his Hindenburg experience.

He looked away, blinking against a momentary sting.  It didn’t take much to see that his problems didn’t amount to–he sought for a comparison, then smiled–a hill of beans.  It was Bogart’s line.  Whatever the woman in the floral dress was going through, his own anxieties couldn’t measure up.  Earle couldn’t know Hoffman’s mind any more than Bogart knew Bergman’s, and in this time he couldn’t edit in messages from her or create pictures of the two of them at romantic vacation stops, or even replay their times together.  He was a time traveler stuck in the ever-present and always receding now with the people around him an enigma, like the woman in the floral dress.

On the screen, Bergman slipped away from her motel room to meet Bogart, to tell him of her life after she married Laszlo, how she thought Laszlo was dead when she’d met Bogart in Paris.  Earle slid his arm out from under Hoffman’s hand, then walked to the rear of the theater.  From the back, he could see all the still heads.  Earlier in the film he’d heard conversation, but now there was nothing but Bogart and Bergman’s voices.  Bergman buried her head in Bogart’s shoulder.  She said the line: “I ran away from you once, I can’t do it again.”

Earle nodded.  He’d seen this moment over and over.  It seemed to him that Bergman was exactly torn.  She loved her husband, but she also loved Bogart.  It was a perfect scene, balancing the two men she loved against the sureness that she would have to leave one behind.  Maybe she believed that Laszlo really lived for his work and could go on without her, or maybe she knew that no matter what happened, if she demonstrated her love for Laszlo by deserting him for another man that she had done the right thing.  There was no way to tell.  Regardless, she chose Bogart and set him in motion for the end of the film.

Who was the audience rooting for?  Laszlo seemed a bit of a cold fish, but he was absolutely blameless in his love for his wife and devotion to his anti-Nazism.  Bogart was flawed and scarred, but his passion for Bergman redeemed him.  And now, in the time the audience watched, France was still occupied.  The Vichy government still danced to Germany’s pipes.  Soldiers were dying over what song the people would sing, “Die Wacht Am Rhine” or “La Marseillaise.”

Earle moved to where he could see more of the audience.  He imagined how the sequence would replay when he downloaded the nanotech recordings.  The noisy projector clicking away in the background.  The feel of plush beneath his hands.  The hint of rain held in wet coats dripping onto the floor.

Now came the plan, the thinking that Bogart did for Bergman.  Bergman believed she was leaving Casablanca with Bogart.  They went to the airport.  Bogart told Renault to fill out the letters of transit with Laszlo and Bergman’s name.  Bergman was confused.  Bogart explained, the time travelers lament, that if she didn’t  leave she would regret it, “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”  The plane took off.  Major Strasser was shot.  Bogart and Renault walk into the fog together.

Earle closed his eyes and leaned against the wall.  The soundtrack boomed out “La Marseillaise.”  People clapped.  He opened his eyes.  Some of the audience was standing, applauding the screen as the curtains closed and the lights came up.  They kept clapping.  Even though there were no live performers to appreciate their reaction, they applauded.  Finally, they turned, gathered their umbrellas and coats to head toward the exits.

“I loved that,” said a woman to her companion as they passed Earle on the way out.  “Who would have believed Bogart could play a romantic lead?” said another. 

Hoffman walked up the aisle, the house lights catching the shimmer in her hair.  “You were right to come here.  I had no idea,” she said, her hand brushing his as she passed.   “I’ll see you in the lobby.”  She nodded back into the nearly empty theater.

Only Durance and the woman in the floral dress remained.  Durance stood next to her, leaning down over where she was seated, speaking earnestly.

Earle glanced to the exit.  Hoffman was already gone.  He walked down the aisle toward Durance and the woman.  It wasn’t until Earle was close enough to touch them that Durance looked up.

“She seemed upset,” said Durance.

“I’m better now, really,” said the woman.  She’d dried her face, but her mascara had smudged.  “I don’t know what came over me.”

“I understand,” said Durance.  “Look,” he said to Earle.  “You were right.”  He fumbled for words, “I didn’t think a film . . . it wasn’t sentimental.”  He inhaled deeply, and in the exhalation was a hint of an emotional quiver.  “They’re doing the show again, aren’t they, in a half hour?”

Earle nodded.

“And it will be exactly the same, won’t it?  They can’t change it?” said Durance.

The woman looked at him quizzically.

Earle understood.  The film would always play out the same way.  Like the Hindenburg.  Like all of history, unrolling in its immutable way.  That was its charm.  “Yes,” he said.  “Of course.”

Durance took a seat next to the woman.  “We thought we’d see it again.”  He gestured toward the exits. “Could you pay for our tickets?”  Durance and the woman faced the screen, waiting for the lights to go down and the curtain to open.

In the lobby, Hoffman stood by the door.  They stepped onto the sidewalk without speaking, where the rain had slowed to a gentle patter, hinting of snow.   A block later, while they waited to cross the street, Hoffman said, “It was a good story.”

She was looking into the distance.  Not at him.

“Yes,” he said.

“It had a good finish.”

“Yes.”

As they crossed, Hoffman took his arm.  He realized she hadn’t brought her umbrella.  Water ran off the edges of her hat.  She said, “What should we do now?”

When they reached the sidewalk, she still held his arm.

Earle thought of Bogart walking into the fog with Renault.  It was a good ending, a wow finish.  Earle said, “I hear that Cab Calloway is playing at the Park Central.”

Hoffman smiled in a lingering way that seemed very much like Ingrid Bergman.  “Do you know how to dance?”

A passing car splashed water on their legs.  Earle didn’t care.  They had another twenty hours or so in New York, in the city that never sleeps.  Meanwhile, in Casablanca, Sam sang at his piano, the old song, Bogart’s and Bergman’s song.  Everybody’s song.

It’s true, Earle thought as the rain came down, as the water gurgled in the gutters, as the undersides of clouds glowing in New York’s evening lights twisted slowly above.  Sam was right: it’s still the same old story, and it would always be, as time goes by.

This story originally appeared in Amazing Stories.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."