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The Light at The End of The Corridor

Comte Ronald de Ronaldo Bonnefont abandoned his sedative daydream of old glories and gradually became aware of his body around him. Immobile on his right side, eyes closed, knees bent and his left leg crossed over the right, he pronounced aloud his matinal resolution - "Today I will not drink."

It was not unusually late. Yet he seemed to be returning from a kind of death. Each morning was his personal resurrection. He remembered he'd awakened at drinkers' hour, his throat parched. After long procrastination he'd slid out of the high bed onto all fours and grappled in the dark along the hardwood floor for the bottle of Santa Maria mineral water. He hated to drink water during the night for inevitably an hour later he would have to go to the toilet.

Worrying about the murkiness of yesterday's events before he'd leapt into nothingness, intermittently stewing and sweating when he recalled his mounting household bills that he anyway couldn't pay, he had alternately stewed, daydreamed, or tried to reconstruct yesterday, which now seemed to have consisted of several days as he crossed back and forth the borders between relative sobriety and impenetrable darkness, between awareness that he was drunk and the blackness of his nether world.

His self-awareness of his drunkenness seemed like progress. At least better than blackout! He was tempted to compliment himself.

It must have been four or five a.m. when he'd shifted tactics and began reconstructing a favorite scene from his golden youth - a certain reception back in the family's Mexico City mansion in Las Lomas. The scion of the scion of the top economic minister of the Porfirio Diaz regime - one of the "wise men"- he's dressed in a white linen suit and sober foulard, an ivory cigarette holder in one hand and in the other a thin glass of champagne held at a nonchalant angle as he walks down the long corridor past the curve of the wide staircase - he, Comte Ronald de Ronaldo Bonnefont, stands much taller than his five feet and five inches. He especially liked to re-do again and again the scenes in which he, the family aesthete, moves among the guests awakening envy among everyone as he greets them casually in English or Spanish, Portuguese or French, recalling something personal about each - a question to the painter about a new art exhibit, an appreciation to the poet for a new edition of collected works, praise to the architect for the brilliant new weekend house near Acapulco.

Ah, no wonder he was once one of the most sought-after social lions for the elegant drawing rooms of Mexico City!

Such pleasant scenes finally rocked him back to sleep. As the early morning progressed and the coldest part of the day on the plateau arrived he awoke frequently and, if he stewed, he sweated and threw off the covers. But when he succeeded in reenacting the memory of the good times he felt the pleasant morning chill and snuggled back under the soft wool.

Thank God - he must have slept the last hour. He felt refreshed. He smiled to himself when he felt the twinge of an incipient erection. He then remembered his dream, somewhere back in the night. He was rowing a small boat, on a lake it seemed, toward an island. A castle crowned the island. Flags were waving from its bastions. He rowed smoothly at first. It was a pleasant scene - until other boats began appearing alongside, rowers and occupants peering at him, challenging him. Row faster! Row faster! It was a race to the island. But no, he was on the open sea, and the other boats had vanished. Enrique was in his boat. 'Row faster,' Enrique was shouting, inciting him, provoking him. 'Row faster!' 'Where, where?' he screamed. On the horizon was only the horizon.

'Andale, Comte Ronald de Ronaldo Bonnefont,' he thought, 'you will have to open your eyes.' Lying there with his eyes shut, snuggled inside the cocoon of his old reality, he felt secure. Almost strong. He was in control. And there was the erection too. The confusion and the danger were out there in the real world where he no longer controlled anything. He feared what he would see if he opened his eyes.

But his exploding bladder blotted out both fear and oblivion. He edged his legs to the side of the bed, then to the carpet alongside, and slowly sat up, his eyes still sealed. He could make it to the bathroom blind. Tentatively he put his little right foot on the freezing terracotta floor, and gasped from shock. In desperation he forced himself to an uncertain standing position. When he took the first step, his spindly legs wobbled and nearly buckled. His head spun. He opened his eyes.

"O Cristo," he groaned, looking around at the confusion of clothes and shoes. "No! No! Absolutely no drinking today. That's a vow!"

Leaning against the washbasin Comte Ronald de Ronaldo Bonnefont emptied his bladder, his eyes wandering from his protruding, perfectly round paunch to the shower. He shook his now shrunken penis a long time. What relief! Gracias a Dios, he had no headache. But he never did. He should shower. Water was enticing. But the ennui of searching for towels and fresh underwear was overpowering. He put his head under the faucet and decided he would only shave and use lots of deodorant.

On thin legs, pale white and hairless like most of his body, he staggered back to his night table for his glasses, felt his way back to the bathroom, and in the wall-to-wall mirror began a minute examination of his face. He knew the terrain by heart - his hairline was continuing to recede, the blond rinse was fading, and his thinning longish hair was showing its natural dirty gray. His once blue eyes were sunken back into his narrow skull, colorless except for the mysterious lines of bulging veins. His beard was so light that he was tempted to skip also the shave.

But no! in a flash he recalled that today was the big day - the annual reception at the Zavala's. For orphans' benefit, or some such noble cause. He couldn't fail to make an appearance - he hoped a dignified showing as befitting his noble lineage. Was it not today? Everybody who was anybody would be there. Therefore absolutely no drinking until he was safely in the big drawing room and he'd greeted soberly all the town nobles. He would go alone. Most certainly with none of those cheap male whores of his shabby entourage. He would taxi up the winding driveway near the Chorro and descend with dignity from . . . from a green and white taxi?

Mais non, c'est impossible - he would take a black limousine. Just because I'm, as they say, a drunk, and also gay, I'm no less than those hypocritical citizens. Who do they think they are anyway? A gang of nobodies, that's who. In Mexico City not one of them, not even Maria Gracia Zavala herself, would have entered our door.

With his thumbs he pushed upwards the skin above his eyes and wondered if he shouldn't have the sagging corners cut and tucked - his eyes had become mere slits across each side of his devastated face, as if sketched in by a caricaturist.

"But then," he whispered, "what does it really matter? This person in the mirror is not me anyway. Certainly not! Maybe I've forgotten who I am, or even was . . . but I know you are not the real me."

He stared hard at his reflection. It seemed he'd always seen only a reflection of himself, as if he were outside his own life. He frowned at his mirrored self when from his unconscious the memory of something unpleasant briefly surfaced. What was it trying to say? It was something he should remember. What day was it anyway? Is the reception really today? Oh God, let it be tomorrow! But if the reception is today, then Saturday, yesterday . . . yesterday was, oh God! yesterday was the day he was to have had the lunch for a new couple in town. He'd invited all his friends to his first comida in many months.

Did it even take place? he wondered.

Peering curiously through his glasses into those narrowed eyes to his deepest deep, he seemed to see as if at the end of a foggy corridor a faint light, like the footprint of distant memory. He squinted to filter out everything but the thing flickering in the depths, fully expecting the appearance of the usual paternal image.

But no, it wasn't his stern father scolding about le droit chemin. He smiled, relieved. "It's the flicker of my future."

He started when instead he saw himself standing in his own lower reception salon. He is surrounded by his guests, his boys are hovering around him and offering drinks, his shadowy figure leans forward to examine his guests - who are they anyway? They're sitting in the Mexican chairs and on the velour couch. One guest, it must be . . . it is, why it's that queer, Aaron. Aaron shouts "Johnny Walker, Johnny Walker."

He watched Comte Ronald de Ronaldo Bonnefont begin to fade. His jagged contours dance grotesquely. His dress becomes colorless. Strong arms are pushing him backward, down, down, down the corridor. His hands outstretched toward the salon, he whispers hoarsely, "I want to stay with my guests, I must stay, oh please let me stay, it's my party."

He remembered. That was just before he woke up the first time to find it was day - day again, or still day, he didn't know which. He was still very drunk.

Ronald didn't experience the reality of the party but he knew how it had gone. How many times his most intimate friends, or drinking partners, or lovers, had related to him his own escapades in great detail. It was miraculous that his liver hadn't simply crashed. Strange that he wasn't back in the hospital today. He looked into his eyes.

"I'm dying," he pronounced. "I can smell my approaching death."

I should leave here. San Miguel is responsible. It's these drinking people. It's the boys. They get me drunk just so they can rob me. Nearly everything of value has already disappeared from my house. And they steal the money from my pockets. It's that Enrique. He's the worst. Just because he's so beautiful he thinks he owns me.

"Someday," he said to his image, "some morning before they give me my first drink and I fall into their power, I'll find Father's pistol and blow Enrique's brains out."

Suddenly he heard noises downstairs. He put on his purple robe, rather thin now, but still his favorite, and walked carefully down the narrow stairs. Standing shakily in the corridor at the bottom, he saw loyal Margarita in the kitchen, and, to his right, in the sunken reception room, Enrique and some friend slouched on the velour couch. The other looked familiar, probably one of those whores Enrique introduced into his, Ronald's bed - while the others robbed him blind. How he hated them.

"Henry!" He anglicized his name in a useless attempt to lend the uncouth youth some style and ennoble his base nature - he spoke just to get his attention, for he had nothing to say to him.

"What time is it?" he said in English.

"Late!" grunted the other. "Pero temprano para ti!" Enrique added maliciously and grinned at the young man sitting close to him.

He's evil. He's the devil en persona. They think I'm blind and stupid, that I don't notice they're systematically robbing me. They think I'm only a drunk. Like most people in San Miguel, even my best friends, Enrique and his crowd consider me a drunk, not an alcoholic. An alcoholic at least is considered a sick man awakening pity. But a drunkard is a loathsome, ignominious coward.

Oh, if he could only escape it all! Sometimes when he awoke, suddenly conscious that he was near the end of the corridor, he thought of some dramatic gesture to change his circumstances. He could return to France. His French-born grandfather and his own lycée and university studies in Paris made him part French - sometimes he considered himself more French than Mexican. Yet his French origins seemed less important here in this resort town with all its foreigners and oddball Mexicans who had come here from Mexico City to escape. We're all black sheep, he thought distractedly. Well, they'll see, the day my inheritance comes through.

He took from Margarita his usual black coffee and went to the rear parlor, closed the door, inserted a cigarette in an ivory holder, and sat down to telephone a few friends about his party. He sighed, relieved, when old Antonio, rather down at the heels himself, thanked him for the wonderful lunch. So established that his party had in fact taken place, he called Isabella, a wealthy stingy widow who'd attended every party at his house for years, to get the gory details.

"Well, first of all they put you to bed even before all the guests arrived," she said and laughed hysterically.

"Oh no!" he gasped. What shame. What a pity.

"Half of them never saw you, you bad, bad boy. But you know, it was funny, you looked perfectly sober until suddenly you began tipping over in your chair. Enrique caught you and they had to carry you up those crooked stairs. Nothing heavier than a drunk! Enrique said."

"Someday I'll kill him," Comte Ronald de Ronaldo Bonnefont muttered. "He only thinks he knows me . . . but he doesn't know me at all."

"What?"

"I said someday I'll make him pay. Ce n'est point gratuit, ca."

"Why don't you just ask him to leave?"

"I don't know why . . . maybe I'm dependent on him, too. But he and his friends laugh at me and call me 'the drunk.' They think I'm a sucker for all their intrigues."

"Oh, Ronnie, you're such a card! . . . Well, any news from your lawyers?" Their respective law suits were part of every conversation with Isabella - his suit, for his share of the considerable estate left by his grandfather, most of which was in France where the economic wizard had escaped at the time of the Great Mexican Revolution; hers, from the legal battle between her and her deceased husband's children of a first marriage about vast properties in Mexico City.

"Nothing precise. But I assure you the day I get my part, it will be adieu to San Miguel. I'm not cut out for this life . . . Uh, my dear, I wanted to ask you how Professor Austin and his wife took to my . . . well, to the fact that I retired early. I so wanted to make an impression on them - he is said to be a leading architect in the United States. Did we talk a bit . . . or have a cocktail together?"

"Well, you did make an impression! And yes, you did have a drink together . . . before they carried you away. He looked surprised when you just keeled over."

"It's all Enrique's fault! You know that. They know my weakness and push drinks on me as soon as I get up in the morning. Now the Austins will never come again!" He knew that his social life had foundered on the reefs of his drinking. The drunkard label, the 25-year old lawsuit, and now Enrique were just too much to bear.

"Well, Querida," he sighed, "I will pick you up for the reception. I'm taking a limousine of course."

After another coffee, this time with a suspicion of cognac, a glass or two of sherry and a half bottle of a Chilean white wine for lunch, a small Calvados while shaving, and two gins and tonic in quick succession before striding out the door, he climbed into the limousine, optimistic, cheerful and hardy. It was 5 o'clock and he had the day in his pocket, so to speak - together with the thin flask of Remy Martin.

Comte Ronald de Ronaldo Bonnefont negotiated the hourly price with the chauffeur, Alvaro as usual, asked him to please put his chauffeur's cap on properly, gave him Isabella's address, after which, he instructed the mute driver, they would make a tour of several places in town before returning to the palace on the hill, which was no more than a three-minute walk from his house.

Those details arranged, he settled back on the plush seat and permitted himself a long drink from the flask. Now this was the life he was used to - the life he most certainly merited. If it just weren't for that worthless Enrique! But then they were already at Isabella's, who, after Alvaro's ring, had them wait the mandatory four minutes before her Otomi household servant opened the portal to her patio, stood at the door as her mistress mounted the limousine, and wished her a good evening.

Out the Ancha de San Antonio, Ronald had the chauffeur pull under the entranceway of the luxurious Hotel Real de Minas and asked him and Isabella to wait there under the marquee. He passed the open bar in the center of the sprawling lobby, waved to a few people he didn't know at all, stopped to examine a painting near the reception, lifted a house telephone and, after pretending to dial a number, hung up with a frown on his face.

As they drove slowly back up the hill along Hernandez Macias he offered Isabella the flask. They took a right in Umaran, circled the Jardin, passed down Calle Reloj, and turned left into Mesones in order to stop in front of the Peralta Theater. Ronald looked at the crowd gathered for a Chamber Music concert. He had another drink of cognac. While the limousine double parked he entered the theater lobby, nodding to strangers left and right, stood in front of the ticket window and displayed disappointment that the best seats were fully booked. Then discarding the idea of drinks at Tio Roberto's, he returned to the limousine, tapped Alvaro on the shoulder, and said, "to the Chorro Palace, good man!"

Less than two hours later, a hatless Alvaro, his black tie askew, a little drunk himself - a generous Ronald had left him the flask of cognac when he entered the reception - dragged Comte Ronald de Ronaldo Bonnefont to his front door and let him fall into Enrique's waiting arms.

BREAK

It was already morning when he woke the second time. Lying in the dark of the room he saw clearly the flickering light near the end of his corridor. A silent corridor, it was, in his dream. A corridor of damned souls. He opened his eyes in the dark. The lamp was still there. Wavering, flickering, beaconing. The station master at a gare in a provincial town in north France was signaling him. Is it meant for me? he wondered.

He eased his feet to the carpet and . . . suddenly he was standing at the bottom of the staircase. And there they were, Enrique and friends, sleeping, bottles here and there on tables and the floor. Enrique was lying face down on the velour couch. Two of them were lying on their sides on the thick carpeting. Two more nearly naked were sleeping on the day bed in the second reception room.

"They drink my booze, rob me of silver and gold, and call me the drunk," he whispered to himself.

He was in the kitchen. Light streamed in the windows. It was the big day of his life. His thoughts were swirling like bees around his head. Swinging through the skies of his memory, trying to glimpse into the recesses of his subconscious, he heard only an echo and wondered if it should have any binding power over him. I was born in darkness. I was fed and clothed and pampered in light. And now I must end in darkness. I don't remember the darkness of my birth and I scorn death - so I'm after all Mexican. He laughed. But my death will be in light. It will make me complete. The darkness of my birth, the dark mystery of approaching death, the saving light, it's all here - at the end of the corridor. But what, what is that there? Is that France down there, at the end of the corridor? And who is that? But of course, it's Enrique!

Ronald de Ronaldo tiptoed to the worktable and looked over the knife rack. He extracted one and examined it curiously. "No!" he said. "Too wide."

Then, here was a short-bladed paring knife. But of no use.

The third was heavy and durable with a long blade that tapered gradually to a fine sharp point. He placed the knife on the table and began palpating the sides and back of his head, his puffy face cracked in a satisfied grin.

"Right here, behind my ear lobe. It's nice and soft."

He peeked into the salon and established Enrique's position - he was still flat on his stomach, his head hanging over the side of the couch.

"Perfect, perfect, perfect. A drunk, am I? You don't know me, you don't know me at all, young man. Now you're going to meet the real me."

He touched the back of his head at the base of his skull and sought the soft inviting center spot. "That will do nicely."

Comte Ronald de Ronaldo Bonnefont opened several drawers before he found the proper tool, a heavy iron hammer with a wide head. "That too will do nicely."

Discarding the suggestion of a cigarette first, he tiptoed into the salon, leaned over beautiful Enrique, parted the curly blond hair on the back of his head, positioned the knife in the soft spot at the base of his skull, raised the hammer, and - he looked straight into Enrique's smiling eyes.

He gasped with pain when a powerful hand grasped his wrist and the knife fell to the terracotta floor with a clatter. The others sat up quickly amid laughter and shouts and applause.

It was another dream. The room swelled with people. Rushing and pulling around him, under him, over him. They ripped off his robe. Long finger nails scratched him. Hands pulled at his underpants. They mussed his hair and tripped him up as he stumbled about the room. Loud laughter. Shouts of 'let me at him' and 'let me do it now' and then 'out with him' and 'away with him.' 'No, no!' he thought he heard Enrique cry. 'Don't hurt him, he's so fragile. Don't hurt him.' More laughter and pats on his rear as they pushed him out the front door.

Comte Ronald de Ronaldo looked around his little front yard. The shrubbery was so scrawny, dry, neglected. Waves of dust swirled up the street. The sun was now warm. He pulled up his underpants and again banged on the front door. He rang the bell. It wasn't working. Silence inside. He knew they were peeping at him through the drapes. He jumped sideways along the shrubs and knocked on the window panes, calling in a low voice, "Let me in, open the door, please, I was only joking. Help me Enrique!" Silence. Silence.

His cheek pressed against the cool window pane, he saw the police car gliding slowly down his street. Silently. He held his breath. He should hide. They were going to take him away again. The two uniformed policemen stepped into the yard. Enrique appeared at the door holding a knife in his hands. "He tried to kill me," he shouted, and threw Ronald's robe into the yard. "He wanted to slit my throat."

BREAK

"Will I see the Captain immediately - as usual?" Comte Ronald de Ronaldo Bonnefont said haughtily as the two policemen guided him into the familiar, one-story structure in the lower town. Instinctively he shrank back from the hot smells that raced up the long hall and jabbed at his nostrils. He would have to walk down that hall to the Captain's office where he would be served a coffee. Where with a sorrowful look of contrition on his face he would suffer through the usual lecture and concomitant humiliation before the Captain exacted a personal fine of 1000 pesos to be collected later. Oh verguenza! Then the good officer, the patient Captain, would call his men to escort him back home.

"The Captain isn't here today," one of the policemen said, guiding him gently down the hall. "You'll have to wait your turn."

"Where are you men taking me then?" he said. "I can wait in his office as usual."

"Not this time," the other said, grinning at his partner, and they turned left into a maze of corridors. "This time you can wait with the others."

He could already hear the din of drunken shouts and singing before they turned to face a huge cage-like hall surrounded by steel mesh. As they unlocked a tiny door he staggered under the onslaught of smells of tamales, tequila, sweat, urine and open drains. They pushed him in the drying-out room.

The noise was now deafening - shouted conversations and hysterical laughing, singing from the far end. Hot sunlight beat through dirty windows on the sides. The air was stifling. It was not a pit, or a dungeon as he'd imagined; yet it seemed to him that he was surrounded by darkness. Why was he here? He should be in a clinic. At least in the Captain's office. That was the agreement. That was the understanding. The policemen stood outside the cage and watched. Silence rippled palpably from the groups of men nearest him toward the rear.

He stared fearfully at the dark figures peopling the tight narrow room. A swelling mass of humanity pressed toward him. He pulled his thin robe under his chin - and looked for light. Bodies stinking of sweat and tequila and garlic pressed around him. There was no corridor. No comforting signals. No light. He watched in horror a dark hand touch the lapel of his silk robe. It seemed like a signal - the touch. Silence exploded into bedlam. Laughter and song and smells surrounded him, roared over him and under him. Comte Ronald de Ronaldo Bonnefont felt himself tumbling, careening, falling head over heels into a dark abyss. His own cries of "Capitan, oh Mi Capitan," rang from far away.