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Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Missing Vermeer


In this short story by Roger Pulvers, new and distant horizons open up to put a spring in your step as summer approaches. Illustrations by Alice Pulvers

There are no portraits or self-portraits of Vermeer

News photo

Our loves, as we age, are arbitrary and inexplicably tender, and this is particularly true for those who find themselves old before their time and detached from the lives of the people around them.

Kazumi Kurosu was such a man. The right sentimental melody played by chance as background music in a shop or restaurant, a single leaf skitting down to decomposition outside his window, the sight of a pretty young woman engrossed in a task, oblivious to anyone else . . . or the thought of one painting that, try as he may, he could not erase from his mind. These were the things that set a wave in motion inside him, choking him and flowing up through his throat, like vinegar, and out an eye.

"Oh dear," he thought, when this wave of emotion overtook him, as it inevitably did morning, afternoon and night, "I have been recreated in this world as a hopeless crybaby, at the tender age of 56. If only my mother could see me now."

No one could see him, no one, that is, who would recognize him. Leaving Tokyo, leaving home and leaving everyone who knew him was the only way to form a blank in his mind; to clear his eye of the insidious tear.

He whispered to himself: "Every thought from now on will be disassociated from the man I was before. The old Kazumi Kurosu was left behind in Japan. Kazumi Kurosu, you are a new man, as yet without a new name. Kazumi Kurosu, you have no home, no wife, no children, no country — and certainly no more job. You are a traveler of the world, a blank slate of a person flung into the air, set free on a journey to wherever."

These thoughts cheered him up no end, so much so that he was forced to cover the enormous smile on his lips.

"Mustn't let anyone here think that I am out of the ordinary," he thought, lifting his empty wine glass and tipping it on a 90-degree angle, waiting for the last reluctant red drop to slide into his mouth.

He looked around, one eye taking in the entire cafe through the glass, which distorted tables, walls, faces and raised hands into an all-round image. The jumble of voices reaching his ears was warped into a monotone.

"I like this," he thought. "Music to my ears. It is as if both the sound and the light are reaching me from another time, a time I would prefer living in to this."

He held the glass up to his eye; his very own dark chamber through which he saw the world's images lit to his liking.

News photo

On this dull March day, what had brought Kazumi Kurosu, ex-executive, dutiful husband and sometimes observant father to the Golden Lantern cafe and bar in Delft, Holland — home of the 17th-century painter Johannes Vermeer?

"I know what it is," he thought, gradually lowering the glass and watching the image of the room and its people disperse into its separate clamorous parts. "It's this little photograph-like picture at the bottom of the glass. This is what I came here to see."

Holding the glass by its stem, he rotated it between his thumb and forefinger. The reflection of the leadlight window behind him circled the bottom of his glass.

"Ah, my own private kaleidoscope. I must be drunk, then. The reflection of the window, with its cut colors, should remain vertical at the bottom of my wine glass, despite the glass's rotation. Interesting, the facts one retains from one's high school science class. Without recalling that, I wouldn't know that I have had a glass too many."

He put down the wine glass methodically, so as not to bang it on the table. The glass must have caught the light from the colored lanterns hanging from the ceiling, for it was now streaked in red and silver. A raucous laugh burst from his throat, and he covered his mouth, looking around the room, trying to remain as inconspicuous as he could. He poured the last of the wine from the carafe into his glass and took a sip, again surveying the room to make sure no one was noticing that he was there.

Now the wine tasted bitter, as if the light from the leadlight window had somehow turned it. He put down the glass and lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply.

"I will glide from place to place without making a mark on anyone or anything," he thought. "I have severed myself from my roots. I've put Japan and family and home and job behind me. I am as free as a bird."

He coughed several times, putting the cigarette in a large ashtray advertising Cinzano. He then, drop by drop, finished drinking the wine in his glass. Smoke filled the entire room now. It was as if everyone had started smoking with him. He put the cigarette out and gestured to the young waitress. When he caught her eye, he pointed to the carafe and held up his forefinger, smiling. She nodded, swiveling about, and approached the bartender behind the counter.

News photo

The next thing he knew he was beside a canal holding his head in his hands, a charming spectacle that no Dutch master, however sensitive to the sights of his town, would have imagined: "Japanese with tousled black hair and head in hands on the edge of a canal."

In his own eyes, when he finally dared open them, the canal itself was running across the sky, upside down, miraculously not spilling a drop of its contents, lighter than the clouds themselves.

"More like Chagall than anything else. Oh, I can't be that drunk if I can make an observation like this."

But no sooner did that bolstering thought occur to him than a viscous stream of reddish liquid, thicker than wine, spewed from his mouth straight down into the canal. His head was pounding and, gripping his temples with the force of a vice, he lay down on the cobbled embankment, staring sideways at the street.

The young waitress from the Golden Lantern, dressed in a white miniskirt, gray tights and a light-blue pullover, passed him on her bicycle. He couldn't see her face clearly, but he recognized her by her shoulder-length blond hair. The two wheels of the bicycle merged into four, then eight, then a line of revolving spokes with white, gray and blue edges.

"I'm going to be sick again," he thought, digging his fingernails into his temples.

But just then she slowed down and turned her head back toward him, flashing a big smile.

"Oh my God," he thought, "that's all I needed. This beautiful young woman is trying to destroy Kazumi Kurosu forever!"

He put his head over the embankment, fully expecting another reddish stream to issue from his lips. But nothing came out, just a dry retching that seemed to be caused by a rope connecting his stomach and throat.

The canal itself listed, as if painted in perspective, leading to a corner of the sky.

* * * * *
Two days later in Amsterdam, a woman with a multicolored shawl over her head, holding an emaciated little boy on her hip, approached Kazumi Kurosu on a train. He was on his way from Central Station to Schiphol Airport. She thrust a note in front of his face. It read, in English:

I am from Afghanistan. Please help me. My husband was shot and killed.

The woman was staring directly into his eyes. The little boy was staring at him too. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a 20 euro note. The woman was not taking her eyes off him, though the boy looked at the note and grabbed it.

When he arrived at the airport he immediately took the train back to Amsterdam, not even bothering to cancel his flight to Dublin. The day before, he had thrown out half his clothes and his Samsonsite suitcase. He now had all his belongings in a backpack.

He returned to Delft in the late afternoon.

Why had he gone back?

Was he searching for the waitress who turned her head and smiled at him? Did he need to apologize to her, as any Japanese would, out of embarrassment? Was he hoping that she would smile at him once again?

He sat at the very same table below the leadlight window, a full carafe of red wine, a glass and a canary-yellow Cinzano ashtray in front of him. He took out a cigarette, tossed it lightly in his palm and replaced it in its packet. The waitress from the other day was nowhere to be seen. The person serving today was an exceedingly tall blond waiter with five earrings in his left ear. Now it wasn't the wine or the glass or the light — and not even the thought of the angled canal — that bothered him. It was the Afghani woman and her little boy on the train. He could not get them out of his mind.

"I wasted that money," he thought. "That woman was making a fool out of me, and everyone on the train knew it. I could see in their eyes that they were telling me to ignore her. She was no doubt not an Afghani widow at all, but probably some economic migrant who, for the price of the cheapest train ticket, knew she could cheat naive Japanese tourists out of their money. I must not trust anyone."

CONTINUED ON PAGE 2 >>



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